A New Campaign Ad Sport: Billionaire Bashing It's open season on the wealthy political donors. Democratic campaign ads tie Republican candidates to the Koch brothers, while GOP ads paint sinister images of George Soros and Tom Steyer.

A New Campaign Ad Sport: Billionaire Bashing

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There's a new twist in political attack ads this year. Candidates are not the only targets. Billionaire donors who are bankrolling ads are being attacked by the other side. NPR's Peter Overby has been watching.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Michigan TV viewers earlier this month saw this ad from the League of Conservation Voters.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It still looks like our Michigan, but the out-of-state billionaire Koch brothers use it as a dumping ground.

OVERBY: Industrialists David and Charles Koch oversee a large and well-financed network of political groups. LCV's ad connected them to the Republican senate candidate.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...and their front groups trying to buy a Senate seat for Terri Lynn Land.

OVERBY: While that ad was still running, pollsters from Suffolk University in Boston began asking Michigan voters about the race. There's a standard question on polls - what's the first phrase you think of when you hear a candidate's name? For Terri Lynn Land...

DAVID PALEOLOGOS: Four percent of the respondents said the words verbatim - Koch brothers, big business.

OVERBY: This is David Paleologos, director of Suffolk's political research center. He says four percent isn't huge, but it is meaningful.

PALEOLOGOS: There are several debates scheduled. Obviously the Koch issue will come up. If it's something that Terri Lynn Land can't shake or separate herself from, then it will stick.

OVERBY: On LCV's heels came an answer ad from Crossroads GPS. Like most of the groups in this story, it's a nonprofit that doesn't disclose the names of its wealthy donors. Crossroads attacked Democratic candidate Gary Peters for opposing the Keystone pipeline, and it tied him to billionaire Tom Steyer, a big donor to LCV.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Peters sided with a California billionaire who could profit if the pipeline is blocked. Now that billionaire is spending big bucks to help Peters' campaign.

OVERBY: And so it goes in the battleground states - a video chorus of billionaires bashing billionaires. In Iowa, Steyer's own superPAC, NextGen Climate Action, aired this 60-second drama about Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst and two out-of-state rich guys with a briefcase full of cash.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: She isn't worried about Iowa jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Never mind that. Joni Ernst is with us.

OVERBY: And then, yes, an answer ad from one of the Koch groups, American Commitment.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You've probably seen this ad showing fictional out-of-state billionaires spending millions in Iowa politics.

OVERBY: Steyer and Democratic candidate Bruce Braley both get slammed.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Steyer got rich off cheap, foreign coal, but supports Braley shutting down access to affordable American energy.

OVERBY: Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment. He says the ad ran online but never got enough traction to warrant a TV buy. Kerpen says Democrats attack wealthy conservatives to stir up their base and raise money.

PHIL KERPEN: They will not stop using these sort of character assassination personal attacks unless and until liberal donors start to feel the same kind of heat and pain.

OVERBY: Liberals, of course, see it differently. Steyer's political consultant is Chris Lehane.

CHRIS LEHANE: You know, in the states where there's truly competitive races, the Koch's have become an anchor - a millstone around a lot of the Republican candidate's necks.

OVERBY: And at the University of San Francisco Washington Center, political scientist Tom Goldstein says ads attacking the wealthy can benefit both parties.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: They're both part of a global strategy of saying this other candidate is not one of us because they're with these rich outsiders.

OVERBY: And that works, provided your own wealthy allies can stand the heat. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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