After Republicans dominated outside-group political spending in 2010, Democrats began constructing an armada of outside groups that could thrive in the bold new world of campaign finance. They formed four groups — one tailored each for the presidency, Senate, House, and opposition research — that promised to balance the political scales.
That vow is now in increasing jeopardy. Instead of matching the GOP dollar-for-dollar, Democrats are struggling to get some of their organizations off the ground. And their difficulties come as Republican groups are attaining new heights, with fundraising goals in excess of $200 million, and threatening to increase the disparity.
Even as some Democrats express confidence that fundraising will improve, they acknowledge the early returns have been disappointing. With outside groups poised to play a critical role in 2012, the money gap is a source of concern in an election where the White House and both houses of Congress are at stake.
“There’s still time, but sirens are going off,” said one Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “Democrats have no choice to find a way to catch up to that, and we’ve got to compete. But it’s a real concern.”
Their concerns gained credence on Wednesday when The Wall Street Journal reported that Priorities USA, the Democratic group dedicated to helping reelect President Obama, was struggling to raise money. Many traditionally big Democratic donors had yet to give, the newspaper reported, and many had already indicated that they wouldn’t.
Priorities USA is one of four outside groups Democrats created in the aftermath of last year’s midterm elections. The others are American Bridge 21st Century, a group focused on opposition research; Majority PAC, dedicated to helping elect Senate Democrats; and House Majority PAC, created to help House Democrats. Those groups, insiders say privately, are performing better than Priorities USA thus far. But they have yet to make the splash of their conservative counterparts.
In October, House Majority PAC touted a series of ads against an array of House Republicans targeted next year. The ad buy, the group reported, was in the six figures, not trivial but far short of what some conservative groups have spent. American Crossroads, the outside group spearheaded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, has already spent $20 million this year. With the backing of not only Rove but also former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the group has set a fundraising goal of $240 million.
“The concern is that the hundreds of millions that Crossroads has proven to raise can construct a Death Star that can blow up other races,” said the Democratic strategist.
Democrats offer myriad explanations for the slow fundraising start. Just last cycle, the party, no one more so than Obama, publicly bashed the outside groups. Democrats have traditionally been supportive of campaign finance reform, and contributing to an array of new organizations that skirt the old rules, including allowing donations to remain anonymous in some cases, might not fit their DNA.
“I think we’ve become victims of our own rhetoric sometimes,” said longtime Democratic operative Steve Elmendorf.
Others suggest raising money is more difficult when in power than out, and Democrats still control the Senate and the presidency. There are even suggestions that Democrats don’t have the talent to match the collective brain trust of the Republicans heading outside groups, the likes of Rove, Gillespie and Barbour.
The Democrats’ chief ally in the struggle is time. They hope fundraising will improve once the election nears, particularly when a Republican nominee emerges. Nothing “focuses the mind like the prospect of losing,” Elmendorf said. “I think once the race becomes clear and the stakes become clear, people will step up and start giving.”
Other Democrats suggest giving to outside groups doesn’t have the same cachet as donating to the official campaign committee. Campaign donors receive invitations to dinners and other special events that put them close to Obama, while the outside groups legally have to remain almost completely separate from the president and his office. And with the Obama campaign poised to bring in more than the $750 million that it raised in the 2008 election, it will have all the money it needs.
“The Obama camp has never relied very heavily at all on outside groups to do their business,” said Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s former deputy campaign manager. “So you’ll see the Obama campaign dwarfing them on hard money at the campaign committee, and that’s a lot more important than the outside groups.”
But Republicans are boasting that they will carry the same advantage next year that they had in 2010. Democratic donors should be eager to give money now to define the Republicans, in particular, presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio.
“If they can’t make the case that now is the time to define Mitt Romney, it’s hard to believe they can make the same case next September when TV time is impossible to buy,” he said.