Frank Luntz Repeatedly Touted Koch Group Ads Without Disclosing He's Backed By Them

“One Hand Is In [The Kochs'] Pocket, While The Other Hand Pats Them On The Back”

Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch have another ally in the media: CBS News and Fox News analyst Frank Luntz. The Republican strategist and pollster has reportedly provided the Kochs with messaging advice while using his media platform to praise Koch advertising efforts as “powerful,” “one of the best,” and having “unlocked the key.”

Luntz is the founder and president of Luntz Global. He is also a walking conflict of interest, whose various financial ties frequently overlap with his media work. 

The Kochs “helped create a broad network of nonprofit groups that control hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into politics.” During the 2012 elections, their network reportedly raised over $400 million for conservative causes. Politico's Ken Vogel reported today that the Koch brothers' network “has in many ways surpassed the reach and resources of the” Republican National Committee. The biggest Koch-affiliated group is Americans for Prosperity (AFP), “which spent $130 million in the midterms, with 550 paid staff” to target Democrats.  

Mother Jones' Peter Stone reported that the Koch brothers have been using Luntz as a messaging consultant dating back to the 2010 election cycle. Luntz has “provided message advice for Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, the fundraising hub for the Koch network, for critical ad campaigns in Senate battleground states.” Earlier this year, Luntz reportedly “popped up in at least two conference calls hosted by top Koch operatives with wealthy donors.”

Stone noted Luntz praised an AFP political ad on Fox News after having helped craft their message, prompting a conservative operative to remark: “One hand is in [the Kochs'] pocket, while the other hand pats them on the back.”

National Review wrote on March 31 of Luntz's influence on Koch messaging: “Luntz found that emotional appeals were more effective and that women were considered more credible than men on the [health care] issue. 'Women are more focused on quality of life and peace of mind,' Luntz says. This year, all of AFP's testimonial ads feature middle-class women speaking from their homes.”  

During media appearances, Luntz has attempted to portray himself as above the fray while failing to disclose his connections to the Kochs' political advertising. During an October 14, 2012, appearance on CBS' Face The Nation, Luntz complained about “awful” negative advertising: “It's also ninety-seven to ninety-eight percent of all ads are now negative. And so all you are told is why your opponent is a fool, is incompetent, or worse yet, a liar. And so how are you supposed to then function as a democracy when ninety-seven percent of it-- and it's awful and it works.” Luntz did not mention his own history with AFP's negative advertising.

The timing and nature of Luntz's work with AFP is murky. When reached by Mother Jones, Luntz “declined to discuss the details of his Koch work” and AFP similarly declined comment, making a full accounting of Luntz's financial connections with the Koch network difficult (The network largely operates within the shadow of difficult to trace “dark money” ). During a December 2013 appearance on Fox News' America's Newsroom, Luntz claimed he was no longer working for AFP. Host Bill Hemmer said: “By the way, you used to do some work for this group a few years ago, and you're no longer affiliated with them, is that true?” Luntz replied: “That is correct.” Luntz then went on to praise the ad's message. 

Luntz joins a long roster of media figures who have connections with the Koch empire. At least 15 Fox News hosts and contributors have recently campaigned for Americans for Prosperity and its sister group the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The Fox figures have in turn defended the Kochs on-air, dismissing criticism of them as “McCarthyistic,” and “a form of social control.” They've also praised Koch political efforts as “effective” and “devastating” against Democrats.

Luntz has offered effusive praise of AFP's advertising efforts during his TV appearances, repeatedly calling their ads one of  “the best.” The group, in turn, frequently highlights his appearances on its YouTube page. Below are four times Luntz touted AFP's political ads without disclosing his connections to the group.

April 3, 2014: “One Of The Best Ads.” During an April 3 appearance on Hannity, Luntz praised an anti-Mary Landrieu AFP ad as “one of the best ads” of the cycle. He added: “It's good. It's very good ... It would have been actually more effective if they had talked about what the president had promised us and then focused on those broken promises.”

September 4, 2012: “The Best Tested Ad Of All The Ones We've Tried.” Luntz appeared on PBS' Charlie Rose, where he said an anti-Obama AFP ad was “the best tested ad of all the ones we've tried. It`s because it`s real people. Those aren`t actors.”  

May 9, 2012: “Americans For Prosperity Unlocked The Key.” Luntz appeared on Hannity and praised an AFP ad, stating: “What makes this one so powerful is that it deals with wasteful, Washington spending, it deals with the debt deficit, all the budget stuff going on and it deals with the fact that some of our own hard earned taxpayer dollars are going overseas and that's why it does so well.”

He added (transcript via Nexis):

LUNTZ: Americans For Prosperity figured out that it is not just the emotional reaction to the ad, does it actually change someone's mind and we have been going, Sean, to Ohio, to Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida. These are the -- Colorado, Nevada. These are the swing states. And when we showed that ad, the reaction afterward was that is what bothers me about Washington and that is what bothers me about President Obama. It was fact- based, not assertions. You see the facts come up on the screen. There is specific numbers, Sean. Americans For Prosperity unlocked the key in this case. Unlocked the key to what makes an independent voter move against Barack Obama. And its wasteful Washington spending helping the Chinese, not hardworking American taxpayers.

[...]

LUNTZ: And exactly what Obama is doing to Mitt Romney as well. Sean, there are three aspects to an effective ad. Number one, is it credible and when you show the video of the candidate that is as effective as it gets. Number two, does it deal with an issue that people care about. And you can bet your dollar, that taxpayers are ticked off and they use much language, mush stronger than that to describe how they feel when their money go overseas. And number three, is there a clear distinction between the two candidates. An all three of those cases, that Americans For Prosperity Ad worked. And Sean, the campaigns that focus on credibility, authenticity, impact and this differential, those are the ads that work and those are the ads that will actually move voters.

February 7, 2012: “One Of The Most Powerful Ads.” Appearing on Hannity, Luntz introduced an anti-Obama AFP ad as “one of the most powerful ads because it talks about taxpayers. And this is a thing that the American people are so frustrated with. Washington is spending their hard earned money.”

His undisclosed Koch conflict of interest is nothing new for Luntz. During the summer he appeared on CBS This Morning and praised Rep. Eric Cantor without disclosing Cantor paid his firm for consulting. That failure was criticized by Fox News host Howard Kurtz and other media observers. In 2012, Luntz also repeatedly appeared on CBS to praise Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) without disclosing Ryan paid his firm for consulting and polling.*

*This paragraph has been updated.