WASHINGTON - To hear party operatives describe the fight for the Senate, it's the boogeyman billionaires against the shifty septuagenarian.
For months, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been pushing an unrelenting string of criticism against 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 and 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 was not 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."
The dueling advice, shared with The Associated Press, suggests communications strategies that largely bypass the records of the candidates 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."
The Democrats are doing the same, casting GOP Senate hopefuls as beholden to the Koch brothers and their agenda.
"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. In an ad from Sen. Mark Begich, Alaskans say the Kochs should not "come up to Alaska and tell us what to do." And Sen. Kay Hagan, an embattled North Carolina Democrat, says the Kochs are trying to "buy this seat."
It's clear the GOP is trying to make this election a referendum on Reid, an immensely powerful figure in Washington but little known outside his home state of Nevada.
"Republicans are lashing out at Sen. Reid because he's been speaking out about Republicans' blind obedience to the shadowy, billionaire Koch brothers as they work together to rig the system to benefit the top 1 percent," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. "Republicans rushing to defend the billionaire Koch brothers is just further evidence that when the Koch brothers say, 'Jump,' Republicans ask, 'How high?"'
To push back on criticism of the Kochs, the RNC outlines how to discredit Reid. In the memo, the RNC urges allies to latch onto 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.
"For a senator who tells outright lies and funnels campaign money to his family, hypocrisy probably seems like no big deal," Kukowski wrote in her memo.
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.
By elevating the 74-year-old Reid to a central role in these elections, Republicans are seeking to put him on par with the Koch brothers.
In part, Republicans are taking this approach out of necessity. While polls show voters sour on President Barack Obama, they like his personality, appreciate his eloquence and admire his family.
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. The California Democrat was central to Republicans' messaging and helped the GOP win majority status during that election.
The RNC sponsored a "Fire Pelosi" bus tour and hung an anti-Pelosi banner on its Washington headquarters. Pelosi was on the ballot in just one congressional district, but her persona hovered over all Democrats on ballots.
The RNC now hopes to replicate that in 2014. The RNC's digital team planned to flood Twitter starting Wednesday with messages with the hastag #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.