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Rules of the Game: For Left, Win Lies in ‘People Power’

Democrats Try to Spin Super PAC Cash Totals

Updated: 9:20 a.m.

Democratic super PAC organizers are putting a brave face on recent disclosures that show GOP-friendly super PACs have outraised them by more than 3-to-1.

“I have no doubt that Democrats will have the resources we need to be the countervailing force” to Republican super PACs, declared former White House aide Bill Burton, a senior strategist for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action, during a recent call with reporters to tout a joint ad campaign with the Service Employees International Union.

And Democrats have “people power, versus corporate power,” argued Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a progressive membership group that rounded up $1.2 million on behalf of Democratic candidates all over the country last year in low-dollar contributions that averaged $11.04 apiece.

“The most authentic activism and communication will be done by genuinely grass-roots groups and actual candidates, as opposed to super PACs that don’t have any memberships,” said Green, who estimated that the PCCC and two other progressive groups, and Democracy for America, pulled in $17 million in direct contributions and candidate donations last year. But the announcement by President Barack Obama’s campaign staff that senior administration officials will now help drum up donations to the super PAC Priorities USA Action signals that Democrats are worried.

The 2011 fundraising totals made public last month by the Federal Election Commission starkly illustrate the GOP’s cash advantage. The leading pro-Democratic super PACs, along with a couple of nonprofit affiliates, collectively raised about $19 million last year.

By contrast, the top 10 pro-GOP super PACs pulled in $64 million, according to the latest Center for Responsive Politics tally. That total doesn’t even include $32 million raised by Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit associated with the leading GOP super PAC, American Crossroads.

“It should set off alarm bells,” said Neil Reiff, a partner at Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb and former deputy general counsel at the Democratic National Committee. “I definitely think this will be a tool to activate people.”

To be sure, Obama pulled in more than $130 million for his campaign in 2011 and an additional $44 million through a joint fundraising committee for the DNC. By contrast, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is looking more and more like the GOP nominee, collected only $56.7 million. And so far, at least, much of the big GOP super PAC money is hammering Republicans, not Democrats.

But Obama’s numbers look less rosy when stacked up against the $30 million collected by pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. The seven-figure donations flowing to GOP super PACs from billionaires, hedge fund managers, and executives in the energy, real estate and financial services industries signal that big Republican contributors will give unprecedented sums in 2012.

While Democratic Party committees have outraised their GOP counterparts so far, they have less cash on hand. And once Republicans choose a nominee, big donors and super PACs now backing GOP hopefuls such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are likely to fall in line behind Obama’s opponent.

Democratic organizers acknowledge that the GOP money edge is forcing them to be more efficient and well-coordinated than ever. The top Democratic super PACs confer by phone virtually every day. They are Priorities USA Action, which backs Obama; Majority PAC, which supports Senate Democrats; House Majority PAC, and American Bridge 21st Century, which focuses largely on opposition research and video messaging.

Organizers for those groups also work closely with EMILY’s List, the PAC backing female Democrats, the League of Conservation Voters and America Votes, an umbrella coalition representing more than two dozen labor, environmental and progressive groups. Democratic super PACs are also leaning heavily on labor groups such as the SEIU and the AFL-CIO for funding.

“We’re absolutely doubling up on efforts,” one Democratic super PAC organizer said. “We have to be as lean as possible to maximize our resources as a group.”

It’s a ground war and get-out-the-vote campaign similar to the Democratic 527s assembled in 2004 in an unsuccessful bid to get the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), into the White House. The big difference then was that big Democratic donors such as financier George Soros, entertainment mogul Stephen Bing and insurance industry executive Peter Lewis invested tens of millions of dollars into the effort.

This year, Soros, Bing and Lewis are all missing from the Priorities USA Action donor list, though they have collectively given several hundred thousand dollars to the other three leading Democratic super PACs. Progressive donors may still step forward, especially now that FEC disclosures show how badly Democrats are outgunned. Democrats are stressing their grass-roots, not their monetary, advantage.

“Let’s be candid: We’re never going to outspend the Koch brothers and Karl Rove,” said Navin Nayak, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. “That’s just the reality. Corporations have always been able to outspend public interest groups. The difference is we have a much more compelling story and the public agrees with us.”

Updated: Feb. 7, 2012

This story has been updated to reflect the Obama campaign’s late-night announcement that the president would be backing and directing senior Democrats to raise money for the super PAC backing him.

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