Prominent Democratic strategists, including two former top aides to President Obama, are formally launching independent committees aimed at countering the onslaught of outside Republican organizations expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the 2012 presidential campaign.
Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, the two companion committees, hope to raise $100 million to defend Obama, organizers said, an amount that will allow them to run ads competing with American Crossroads, the American Action Network, and other Republican-backing outside organizations.
The organization will not live up to the same campaign finance standards by which Obama has pledged to run its campaign. They will take unregulated donations that do not require disclosure; Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats have railed against Crossroads and other Republican groups that do the same thing. The organizers said the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, opening the door to unlimited corporate contributions, left them no choice.
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"In the Citizens United ruling, the right-leaning Supreme Court created a new set of rules that allows individuals to give as much as they want and remain anonymous should they choose," the group said in a press release. "Karl Rove and the Koch brothers then chose to exploit this decision to press their right-wing agenda without accountability. While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars. We will comply with all applicable rules and laws but we won’t be boxed in by a double standard."
The effort is being led by the president's former deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, and Sean Sweeney, who was a top aide to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Paul Begala and Geoff Garin, two long-time advisers to Bill Clinton, will serve on the group's leadership team.
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The formation of the new committees suggests that Democrats recognize they are behind the eight ball in an important area of campaign finance law. After several court cases that allowed undisclosed money to be spent on independent campaign ads by outside groups, Republicans quickly ramped up affiliated organizations to influence the 2010 elections. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that conservative groups spent $190 million in the last cycle, compared to $93 million spent by liberal organizations.
Democrats tried to organize their own outside group, Commonsense Ten, but it was less successful at pulling in money to defend the party's Senate and House nominees.
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This year, Democrats are ramping up a broader effort that includes teams assigned to House races, Senate contests, and opposition research on Republicans. The Priorities USA groups will be detailed to the presidential election.
A spokesman for Crossroads, the conservative independent fundraising behemoth, immediately accused President Obama of "brazen hypocrisy." The president's "own political operatives are launching the very type of groupes they demagogued as 'shadowy threats to democracy,'" Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said in a statement.
Democrats involved in creating the organizations told National Journal they were slow to react to the new campaign finance landscape last year, more concerned with protesting the court decisions opening the door to unregulated donations than in taking advantage of them. As one party operative put it, they were like a prize fighter more interested in arguing with the referee than in returning an opponent’s punches.
"It was clear after the 2010 election that we needed to do everything possible to make sure that every possible independent effort was made to keep control of the Senate, which is why the best Senate strategists in the country got together to form Majority PAC," said Monica Dixon, a former aide to Al Gore and the executive director of the new group tasked with preserving the Democrats’ upper-chamber majority. "This is an early and unprecedented start to counter the efforts of Karl Rove and American Crossroads."
Democrats appear eager not just to match the conservative outside-group infrastructure but to exceed it. Another part of the plan: American Bridge 21st Century, which is modeled after the watchdog group Media Matters, will serve as a sort of “war room” of opposition research, feeding its three sister organizations material that they can use in independent expenditures, while pressing traditional media outlets for coverage.
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"We’re going to build American Bridge into an enduring political research and communications powerhouse," said Rodell Mollineau, the group’s president.
American Bridge signifies just how far-reaching outside groups have become, involved in nearly every effort that once was the sole province of parties and campaigns. How far the political arms race escalates remains to be seen. American Crossroads President Steven Law said that his group, which was also involved in voter-turnout efforts last year, will up the ante by financing an opposition-research team for the 2012 cycle.
The rise of these groups for both the Republican primary and general election campaigns, suggests that the center of gravity in American politics has shifted at least somewhat away from candidates and parties toward these independent organizations, aided in no small part by their significant fundraising advantage.
"When you look at the landscape, the most dominant thing you’re going to see is the outside group," said William McGinley, a Republican election lawyer at Patton Boggs. "And it’s here to stay."
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Alex Roarty contributed. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the April 29, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.