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If you don’t know who the Koch brothers are — and the latest survey says half of you probably don’t — get ready to hear their names a lot this election season.
David and Charles Koch are the billionaire owners of Koch Industries, the Wichita, Kan.-based parent company of several manufacturers and energy companies, like paper maker Georgia-Pacific and refinery Flint Hill Resources.
They also like politics: Their financial backing helped found Americans for Prosperity, a group that has spent millions on ads this election cycle in battleground races like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina to help Republicans win the Senate.
Democrats seem to have settled on their counterattack: public vilification. Sen. Harry Reid has given several high-profile speeches against the Kochs, going so far as to call them "un-American." If only 48 percent of Americans know the Koch brothers by name now, Democrats will continue their barrage to raise the awareness level to 90 percent by the end of the 2014 cycle, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., recently said.
At PolitiFact, we’ve tracked various ads from Americans for Prosperity since the 2010 midterms. With the renewed focus on the organization and its financial backers, we decided to review the group’s history on our Truth-O-Meter and explore more recent trends of their ad messaging leading up to the 2014 elections.
While Americans for Prosperity has weighed in on a variety of issues throughout the years, its most frequent targets are President Barack Obama’s health care law and environmental and energy regulations. Considering the Koch brothers’ holdings and stated positions, that’s no surprise. The organization often cuts an ad and tweaks it slightly so it can run in multiple districts or states.
In 13 fact checks, Americans for Prosperity has never received higher than a Half True from the PolitiFact national team. The majority of their claims have registered as False or Mostly False. (A state chapter of the group did receive a Mostly True for a claim about Georgia’s civil forfeiture laws.)
More recently, we’ve noticed sharper attack ads from Americans for Prosperity that are more nuanced and difficult to fact-check, though still largely lacking in the accuracy department.
For example: Back in 2010, Americans for Prosperity ran an anti-Obamacare ad in 18 congressional districts on the health care law that claimed women wouldn’t be able to get cancer screenings under the health care law. In the ad, a cancer survivor claimed, "A government panel that didn't include cancer specialists says women shouldn't receive mammograms until age 50," and "If government takes over health care, recommendations like these could become the law for all kinds of diseases."
This was easily debunked and earned a Pants on Fire. As we wrote at the time: "The task force did not say women shouldn't receive mammograms until age 50. The task force did include experts on cancer screening. It did not factor in cost. The recommendations are not the new government guidelines (in fact, the government guidelines remained the same). In short, this is a bogus issue."
But this year’s ads have profiled people actually affected by the law, an easier task now that the critical components of the legislation are coming to life. These ads have prominently displayed PolitiFact’s 2013 "Lie of the Year" title given to the administration’s claim that if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, and they feature people who have had policies canceled.
While the ads showcase real examples, they also leave out a lot of important details.
Take the story of Julie Boonstra, a leukemia patient featured prominently in an Americans for Prosperity ad that ran in Michigan. Boonstra learned her policy would be canceled because it did not meet minimum standards of coverage under the Affordable Care Act. A troubling development for a cancer victim, no doubt.
But Boonstra went on to claim that "the out-of-pocket costs (of her new plan) are so high, it’s unaffordable," and that, "If I do not receive my medication, I will die."
By our math, the plan she chose cost about the same as her previous policy, and may have even saved her money. And Boonstra’s new policy allowed her to stay with her doctor. As far as we know, she continued to get the care she needed, and wasn’t at a greater risk of dying.
This trend -- taking a claim that has some truth and pushing it one step too far -- is also something we’ve seen in their ads targeting Senate candidates.
In February, the organization claimed that Sen. Mark Begich, D-Ala., was "on the record" supporting a carbon tax. Begich’s position on the carbon tax isn’t entirely clear. He has never officially come out in favor of it, though he has supported the idea of "making polluters pay" in a letter he co-signed with Democrats pushing climate-change issues. All of that is fair game to criticize Begich or raise the question of whether he would vote for a carbon tax.
But to say Begich is "on the record" for a carbon tax is an embellishment that ultimately earned Americans for Prosperity a Mostly False.
While the ads we checked from Americans for Prosperity this election cycle continue to have distortions, they have painted a more complicated picture compared to the bombastic, over-the-top falsehoods of previous years. We’ll see if the pattern holds true as we get closer to November.
New York Times, "To Strike at Kochs, Democrats Revive Tactic That Hurt Romney," April 5, 2014
Washington Post, "Reid: Koch brothers are ‘un-American,’" Feb. 27, 2014
Politico, "Chuck Schumer: No end to attacks on Kochs," April 7, 2014
PolitiFact, "All Statements involving Americans for Prosperity," accessed April 9, 2014
PolitiFact Georgia, "Georgia's forfeiture laws viewed harshly," March 3, 2014
PolitiFact, "Ad claims if health reform bill passes, government panel could make laws that limit preventive services like mammograms," March 16, 2010
PolitiFact, "Advocacy group stirs Michigan senate race with ad featuring leukemia patient," Feb. 26, 2014
PolitiFact, "Does an Americans for Prosperity ad about a woman with lupus tell the whole story?" Feb. 13, 2014
PolitiFact, "Conservative ad says Begich supports carbon tax," Feb. 25, 2014