Politico

By KENNETH P. VOGEL | 7/7/14 9:00 PM EDT Updated: 7/8/14 5:41 AM EDT

At first, it seemed like just another example of Harry Reid being Harry Reid.

The Senate majority leader, whose unscripted attacks can veer into bellicosity and take liberties with facts, spoke on the Senate floor last October and appeared to blame billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch for the government shutdown.

“By shutting down the government,” Reid said, “we’re satisfying the Koch brothers and Ed Meese, but millions of people in America are suffering.” In January, he went further, accusing the Kochs of “actually trying to buy the country.”

His staff affectionately refers to such ad libs as Reid “getting out ahead of his skis,” but the professional left, which had spent years agitating for a high-level Democratic campaign against the Kochs, cheered and urged him on.

The result has been a highly unusual election-year campaign against a couple of relatively unknown private citizens whom Reid and his Democrats are seeking to make into caricatures of a Republican Party that, on issue after issue, caters to the very rich at the expense of everyone else.

After Reid’s ad-libbed comments, his office developed a strategy for a coordinated campaign that’s expected to resume this month and carry clear through Election Day and beyond. It’s been shaped and reinforced by Reid’s staff, including former operatives of the liberal Center for American Progress, which had pioneered Koch-bashing politics years earlier. An eclectic cast of characters was also involved, including Reid’s wife, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a top Democratic pollster, two brothers who wrote a business-management book and various liberal super PACs and nonprofits.

This story, drawn from more than a dozen interviews with people involved in various phases of the effort — most of whom requested anonymity to discuss ongoing political deliberations — reveals for the first time the key players and considerations behind Harry Reid’s War on the Kochs, the risky strategy on which Democrats are hinging their midterm election hopes.

The Nevada Democrat had been closely following the Kochs’ growing political footprint for years, say those close to him. They say his wife, Landra Gould, also had developed something of a fascination with the brothers. After the shutdown, the couple discussed a seminal 2010 New Yorker story on the brothers’ political activity, which utilized research from CAP. And it was Gould who first suggested that her husband accuse Republicans of being “addicted to Koch.”

Faiz Shakir and Adam Jentleson — Reid’s senior digital strategist and communications director, respectively — helped craft the Koch strategy and had previously worked at the Center for American Progress when it first started working to elevate the profile of the Kochs, who were almost completely unknown even in political circles before 2009.

Shakir ran CAP’s blog ThinkProgress from 2007 through 2012 and deputized one of his bloggers to participate in an ad hoc coalition of liberal groups that sought to make boogeymen of the Kochs. Shakir also sought to enlist members of President Barack Obama’s recently sworn-in administration in CAP’s fledgling battle, with minimal success. Still, the Koch operation aggressively pushed back against CAP’s scrutiny, and Shakir suggested Reid could expect the same if he joined the battle. “My experience with them was that when we escalated they escalated, so we should think about whether we want to take this on,” Shakir told the majority leader after his unscripted salvos from the floor, according to someone familiar with the conversation.

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