When news broke Friday of a $4 million infusion of cash into efforts to pass Proposition 32 -- the ban on paycheck deductions for political efforts -- it marked a major turn in the narrative of the campaign, all thanks to two words: Koch Brothers.
The money, placed into a new committee on Thursday by the conservative American Future Fund, is a major boost for the initiative whose main committee has only raised $3.1 million all year long. The reason for its struggling fundraising is common knowledge in political circles, and is why so few political consultants have formally signed on to the effort: Prop 32 is seen by organized labor as a declaration of war.
The initiative, which simply says that its ban would apply to any entity raising money by deductions from paychecks of workers, would nonetheless have a demonstrably larger impact on the union side of the political world. Business interests, regardless of how they've raised money to date, have more than one avenue for collecting cash. Unions, on the other hand, pretty much exclusively rely on paycheck deductions from their members.
That's why the No on 32 campaign has raised a whopping $36.2 million to kill the initiative, and why almost all of the cash has come from California's most politically powerful labor unions. They may care about other propositions, but Prop 32 is - in their eyes - the whole ballgame.
And so the entry of the American Future Fund money, and the organization's well reported connections to Charles and David Koch, marks a real shift in this fight with less than eight weeks remaining until Election Day.
For starters, the mere mention of 'Koch Brothers' to those in Democratic and liberal circles sets the blood boiling. As such, don't be surprised to see news of this money, which comes from a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization (i.e., donors not disclosed), as a call to arms among those on the left.
"If any doubts remained about who is truly behind Prop 32, we now know with absolute certainty," wrote Brian Brokaw, spokesman for the No on 32 effort, in an email to reporters Friday afternoon.
The brothers Koch, active in conservative politics elsewhere in the country, have played almost zero public role in California politics. In fact, Koch Industries has only reported two direct contributions to California causes in the last seven years, with the largest being a $50,000 check to the California Republican Party in 2005. But their national reputation, fueled by magazine profiles and even a parody in a recent Will Ferrell movie, could give the No on 32 team exactly what they've wanted: a clearly defined target. Granted, there are no visible Koch fingerprints on the AFF money (again, the organization is one of the new breed of American political players that's still able to keep its funding sources private), but that won't matter when it comes to the advertising barrage soon to come.
The official Prop 32 campaign did its best to try and sidestep the issue when called by reporters on Friday - after all, the new money is for a separate political committee and isn't necessarily part of a coordinated Yes on 32 effort. But while the alleged Koch connection is one they'll fight at every turn, the money surely helps their cause.
Even so, $4 million isn't a lot of cash in a statewide initiative campaign these days; it likely doesn't buy much more than a week of solid statewide TV ads. But the real question is whether it's only an early investment, or whether it shakes free any other big money from conservative political donors. A new statewide tracking poll shows Prop 32 still ahead, but losing more than nine points in just the last six weeks. Prop 32 supporters might have needed a game changer, and if so then this would surely qualify.
It's important to remember that this is now the third iteration of a paycheck-ban initiative to have made the California ballot in the last 14 years. The previous two, defeated in 1998 and 2005, were much more clearly drawn as anti-union efforts. This one is constructed to look (and its backers say act) differently, but is starting to feel like a similar campaign.
Stay tuned. Other measures might have more impact on California's finances or system of government, but none will have the raw political emotion of aiming for the heart of one of the state's most powerful political forces. It's going to be an interesting battle.
UPDATE, Sept 16 -- It's been pointed out, correctly, by a couple of readers that the Koch Brothers have been involved in one high profile California ballot fight in recent years: 2010's Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state's landmark climate change law. A Koch-affiliated entity gave $1 million to the effort, which ultimately lost at the polls that November. Thanks to those who highlighted it. --JM