WASHINGTON — The fight for the Senate majority boils down to boogeyman billionaires against the shifty septuagenarian — if party operatives' spin is to be believed.
For months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been unrelenting in his criticism of Charles and David Koch, the wealthy industrialists who have backed some of the nation's most effective conservative groups. Now, Republican candidates are adjusting their plans. They're linking Democratic Senate candidates to Reid, painting the 74-year-old leader and his allies as unscrupulous politicians.
"There's little doubt that Harry Reid is abusing his power as majority leader and resorting to desperate and deceitful measures to hold on to his position. And in so doing, he's showing that he's not fit to hold the position," Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski wrote Wednesday in a memo to candidates and allies.
Democrats said the GOP messaging plan only confirmed their suspicions that the constant campaign against the national health care law wasn't succeeding in moving public opinion.
"Republicans are now discontinuing the strategy they've employed the last 18 months," senior Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide Matt Canter wrote in his own strategy memo, "and are now mounting an aggressive defense of the Koch brothers."
Both parties seem to be adopting strategies that largely bypass the records of the candidates themselves and instead focus on those of their allies. Strategists from both parties are betting heavily that voters, distrustful of Washington, take their word that shady outsiders stand to benefit if their favored candidates prevail.
Take the Republicans. In Colorado, Senate hopeful Cory Gardner pledged to "make Harry Reid a footnote in history." In Florida, a tea party leader pledged to "rip the gavel out of Harry Reid's hand." And in an ad in North Carolina, leading GOP Senate hopeful Thom Tillis gives Reid credit for an ad he is not directly behind: "Know who's paying for the sleazy ads? It's Harry Reid."
A Reid spokesman said Republicans' new tactic shows they have a "blind obedience to the shadowy, billionaire Koch brothers."
"Republicans rushing to defend the billionaire Koch brothers is just further evidence that when the Koch brothers say, 'Jump,' Republicans ask, 'How high?'" spokesman Adam Jentleson said.
In a fundraising email sent Wednesday, Reid told supporters: "Middle class families deserve to know who is trying to buy their votes. They deserve to know the truth about the Koch brothers' anti-middle class agenda." In an ad from Sen. Mark Begich, Alaskans say the Kochs should not "come up to Alaska and tell us what to do." Sen. Kay Hagan, an embattled North Carolina Democrat, says the Kochs are trying to "buy this seat" with millions already spent on television ads in several states.
"The out-of-state billionaire Koch brothers funded the fight to let flood insurance premiums soar, helping the insurance companies," says one Louisiana television ad from the Senate Majority PAC, a group run by former Reid aides that is also behind the North Carolina ads. The group has already spent $11 million this election cycle, much of it on anti-Koch messages.
To combat criticism of the Kochs, the RNC outlines how to discredit Reid. In the memo, the RNC urges allies to amplify reports that Reid reimbursed his political campaign for more than $16,000 in holiday gifts made by his granddaughter and given to his friends and supporters.
The expense was initially charged to the Democrat's campaign, Friends for Harry Reid. But Reid announced he would pay out of his own pocket after the Federal Election Commission asked for more information and Republicans ridiculed the payments to his granddaughter's company, which makes jewelry and similar items.
The RNC also criticized ads from Senate Majority PAC as Reid's handiwork. Reid does not run the committee, which has deep ties to his former aides.
And the RNC adds that several Democrats, including Reid, have accepted donations from Koch Industries' political committees or aides.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus joined the anti-Reid messaging Wednesday during an appearance on Fox News.
"Harry Reid is so dirty and so unethical that some of these things have to happen," Priebus said of the RNC's complaints against Reid.
In part, Republicans are taking this approach out of necessity. While polls show voters sour on President Barack Obama, they still like him.
By contrast, few know Reid. Almost half of Americans didn't have enough information about Reid to rate him, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll in December. Just 17 percent of Americans had a favorable impression of Reid while 37 percent viewed him unfavorably.
Republicans were more apt to be able to identify Reid than others; just 36 percent of Republicans said they didn't know enough to say. Those who support the tea party were far more likely to be able to rate him — among tea party-supporting Republicans, 76 percent viewed Reid unfavorably and 20 percent said they didn't know enough to say.
The move is similar to what Republicans did in 2010 with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The RNC sponsored a "Fire Pelosi" bus tour and hung an anti-Pelosi banner on its Washington headquarters. Her persona hovered over all Democrats on ballots, and Republicans won the majority.
The RNC hopes to replicate that in 2014. The RNC's digital team planned to flood Twitter starting Wednesday with messages with the hashtag #firereid.
Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington and AP writers Kristen Wyatt and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver, Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Mike Mishak in Miami contributed to this report.