WASHINGTON — If you want a window into how outside Republican groups are likely to assail President Barack Obama’s record this year, look no further than how the GOP is lambasting the administration’s handling of solar company Solyndra.
Republicans have used Obama’s ties to the bankrupt California manufacturer to argue that he plays the same political games that have consumed Washington for generations — and has failed to live up to promises to change the nation’s capital. It’s the message GOP-leaning outside groups are promoting in advertising campaigns in states critical to the Democrat’s re-election race.
“Tell President Obama American workers aren’t pawns in your political games,” says one ad run by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group linked to billionaire oil industry executives Charles and David Koch.
Such ads were among the warning signs the Obama campaign saw before it decided to encourage its donors to financially support a Democratic-leaning super PAC, Priorities USA. The announcement came as outside groups supporting Republican Mitt Romney heaped criticism on rival Newt Gingrich before the Iowa caucuses and in early primary states, a preview of what could confront Obama once the GOP primaries are settled.
For Republicans hoping to unseat Obama, Solyndra has become a code word for his handling of the economy.
Obama visited the company two years ago, lauding it for “leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future.” It received more than $500 million in federal loans, becoming the first alternative energy company to receive a loan guarantee under a stimulus-law program the Obama administration highlighted as a way to foster green jobs.
But in September 2011, the company went belly up, resulting in the loss of 1,100 jobs and turning the little-known firm into a campaign catch-phrase for Republicans challenging Obama. Republicans have sought to highlight the connection between Obama fundraisers and the company, arguing that the president used government policies to benefit campaign supporters — and, thus, was no different than the typical Washington politician he promised not to become.
Steve Spinner, an Energy Department official, has raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s campaign while Steve Westly, a venture capitalist who was an unpaid adviser to the Energy Department, has raised between $200,000 and $500,000. Emails released by congressional investigators show Spinner was actively involved in the Solyndra loan, despite pledging to step aside because his wife’s law firm represented the company. Westly tried to warn Obama against the May 2010 trip to Solyndra’s Fremont, Calif., headquarters but the president made the trip anyway.
One of Solyndra’s investors was the foundation of George Kaiser, an Oklahoma billionaire who has supported Obama. Kaiser has said he did not play a role in helping Solyndra receive the loan, but emails show he discussed the solar company with the White House at least once and directed business associates on how to approach the administration to help Solyndra grapple with its financial problems.
Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have said the loan program was intended to spark investment in renewable energy programs that otherwise would not qualify for a private loan. They say officials knew from the start that some investments would fail.
A report released last week by a former Treasury official said the government could lose nearly $3 billion on green energy loans — far less than the $10 billion Congress set aside for the high-risk program. The White House asked a former official to conduct the review in response to investigations by congressional Republicans into the Solyndra
As the GOP presidential race continues, the Republican message aims squarely at undermining Obama’s case on rebuilding the economy as well undercutting his perceived strengths among voters on character issues such as honesty and integrity.
“All of the sudden the companies that end up getting the grants are those who happen to be well politically connected,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, explaining the GOP’s Solyndra message.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said the Republican spots were going after Obama’s integrity but also allowed the re-election campaign to deflect the issue and turn the attention to the oil industry’s support for Republicans.
“This is kind of like the art of war,” Lake said. “You go for your enemy’s strength. But if your enemy is smart, your enemy doesn’t let you come into their strength.”
The Koch group helped energize the Solyndra message last month when it poured $6 million into a minute-long ad in six states crucial to Obama’s re-election map: Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The ad accused Obama’s campaign of raising money from Solyndra investors in exchange for the large federal loan, which couldn’t prevent the bankruptcy and job losses.
Obama’s campaign responded with its own ad — the first of his re-election campaign.
It told voters the president was under attack by “secretive oil billionaires” and defended his record on energy. The ad — at a cost of $2.5 million — ran in the same six states where Americans for Prosperity aired its ad.
Most notably, Obama’s team used the spot to rebut the charges of political machinations, calling the president’s record on ethics “unprecedented” and claiming that Obama “kept a campaign promise to toughen ethics rules.”
American Crossroads, a super PAC connected to Republican strategist Karl Rove, weighed in recently as well. It paid about $500,000 to air a similar spot that called Solyndra a “big government fiasco.” It raised the issue of whether Obama supporters benefited from billions in taxpayer money while laid-off workers were “forgotten — typical Washington.”
The Koch brothers have said they intend to remain active this election cycle.