Money and Democracy

Published — February 8, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Democratic operatives seeking million-dollar checks for super PACs

President Barack Obama Susan Walsh/AP

White House shift may help Dems catch up with GOP on fundraising


Five Democratic super PACs are reaching out to party mega-donors, in a fledgling effort seeking $1 million to $10 million contributions, now that President Barack Obama has blessed the outside spending group working to get him re-elected.

Discussions among the five super PACs are under way about setting up a joint fundraising committee, said Bill Burton, a former deputy White House press secretary and co-founder of Priorities USA Action, which was launched last spring to help Obama win a second term.

“We’re in serious talks,” Burton told iWatch News, but added that a final decision hasn’t been made about establishing a joint fundraising mechanism. Either way, “there are a lot of people in the progressive donor community who have not yet gotten involved who are likely to be involved.”

Other top Democratic fundraisers say that a joint fundraising entity is likely and stress that the White House’s abrupt shift on super PACs — which came Monday in a conference call to leading donors and fundraisers with campaign manager Jim Messina — could help prod large donors to write seven-figure checks.

Democratic fundraisers are hoping that several major donors such as Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and Chicago media executive Fred Eychaner, both of whom have already written large checks to Priorities USA Action, will pony up considerably more to a joint committee.

Katzenberg has donated $2 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that Burton and ex-White House aide Sean Sweeney created, and Eychaner, an old friend of Obama’s, has chipped in $500,000 to the same PAC.

“There are donors who have expressed interest in a unified effort,” said Harold Ickes, president of Priorities USA Action, who is also a veteran Democratic fundraiser and a lobbyist with strong union ties. “A unified effort makes an enormous amount of sense and is likely to result in more money being raised.”

Democratic super PACs, which were created early last year and have struggled to catch up to much better funded Republican groups such as American Crossroads, are aimed at helping Obama win re-election, preserve the Democratic majority in the Senate and win back the House.

Besides Priorities USA Action, the other Democratic groups involved in the joint committee talks include Majority PAC, which is focused on the Senate, and House Majority PAC, which is House-focused. The other two super PACs are American Bridge 21st Century, an opposition research entity that helps the other PACs, and America Votes, a get-out-the-vote operation for Democrats.

Last year, the five super PACs and two affiliated non-profits raised a combined raised $19.6 million. In contrast, American Crossroads and its non-profit affiliate, Crossroads GPS, pulled in $51 million.

Priorities USA Action and its non-profit affiliate have said they want to raise $100 million. They have pulled in $6.7 million in 2011. American Crossroads and its non-profit arm, launched in early 2010 by GOP consultants Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, are trying to raise $300 million, according to fundraisers close to the group.

The fundraising gold rush by super PACs on both sides has been spurred by court rulings in early 2010 that overturned decades of campaign finance law and opened the floodgates to corporations, individuals and unions writing unlimited checks to pay for ads by outside groups that directly support or oppose candidates.

The new joint effort, fundraisers stress, is expected to be contingent on pulling together a group of super donors who collectively would pony up between $40 million and $100 million. Fundraisers note that it’s important to potential big individual donors that if they write checks in the $5 million range, their contributions would be matched by several others.

The new drive comes after months of growing anxiety among Democrats about their weak super PAC fundraising compared to their GOP counterparts.

Democratic fundraisers say that potential donors have been confused by multiple requests for help from different super PACs working to boost Obama’s campaign as well as the two congressional campaign committees. Last fall, several of the super PACs tried to allay some of these concerns by holding joint meetings with donors, including one in Boston.

The weak super PAC fundraising last year is also partly attributable to the much more robust efforts of the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee which together pulled in more than $233 million. By comparison, the leading GOP contender Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Republican National Committee pulled in only $144 million.

In recent weeks, Democratic fundraisers have grown especially concerned about the powerful impact of the negative ads that two GOP super PACs backing Romney and Newt Gingrich have run in key primaries. In Florida, the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which last year raised $30 million, spent close to $10 million on mostly negative ads against Gingrich to help the former governor win a resounding victory.

In South Carolina, Gingrich’s super PAC Winning Our Future, which has received $11 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family, ran about $3 million of blistering ads against Romney to help the Georgian score his only win.

Besides, Katzenberg and Eychaner, other big donors whose names come up as potential candidates for $5 million or larger donations include Penny Pritzker, an heir to a hotel fortune, who was finance chief for Obama’s 2008 campaign; Haim Saban, a media mogul whose company created the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; and banking executive Robert Wolf, who chairs UBS Group Americas.

Democratic fundraisers however are not counting on billionaire George Soros, who gave over $20 million in 2004 to two outside groups spearheaded by Ickes. A top aide to Soros has said that the billionaire has not yet made up his mind about giving more for the presidential effort this year.

Soros contributed $100,000 to Majority PAC in December and $75,000 to House Majority PAC last May, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Notwithstanding their more bullish fundraising prospects, the new endorsement of Priorities USA Action by the president has sparked heavy criticism from different quarters, including campaign reform advocates and Republicans who have accused the White House of betraying their principles and hypocrisy. The president last year had called super PACs a “threat to democracy” and even Monday morning voiced worries about their negative impacts.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, in a statement called the new policy a “brazenly cynical move by Barack Obama and his political handlers who just a year ago had the chutzpah to call outside groups a threat to democracy.”

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 has gone further and is writing to the Justice Department to ask for an investigation of the super PACs backing Obama and Mitt Romney.

“We believe that these super PACs are merely arms of the presidential campaigns being run by close associates of the candidates and not legally entitled to be independent groups,” Wertheimer told iWatch News.

Leaders of the two super PACs have said their operations are legal and independent of the campaigns.

Even some long-time Democratic fundraisers voiced concerns about the new push for unlimited funds.

Retired Philadelphia educator Peter Buttenwieser, who raised over $500,000 for the first Obama campaign and still backs the president, in an interview said that “I understand that the president had virtually no other choice and so I’m supportive of it. But I’m not happy about the new direction. I think it puts us in a somewhat compromised position.”

Michael Beckel contributed to this report.

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