Democrats have railed for more than a year against the landmark Supreme Court decision that unleashed unlimited and undisclosed corporate and union dollars in political campaigns, but now they’re preparing to collect and spend this same money.
Democratic operatives are racing to organize new groups to solicit and spend millions of dollars that the Citizens United ruling allowed, gearing up to play by the same rules as Republicans regardless of whether they like those rules.
They all insist that they don’t. But after watching Republicans take advantage of the new rules to spend unprecedented volumes of cash and win House and Senate seats across the map in the 2010 midterm elections, they say they can no longer stand back on moral grounds.
“A lot of Democrats are committed to reform, including us,” said Bill Burton, a former White House deputy press secretary. “But we’ve got to operate under the rules that exist, not the rules we wish existed.”
In his January 2010 State of the Union address shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass legislation to reverse it. But last month, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, in a video addressed to supporters, acknowledged that political realities are forcing a shift in strategy.
“We have to compete with that,” Messina said of Republican third-party groups that spent nearly $190 million in the last cycle, with $120 million coming from secret sources. “We have to understand it’s gonna be there.”
Along with fellow Obama White House alum Sean Sweeney, Burton has launched two groups — Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action — to help re-elect the president in 2012.
The partnership is designed to mirror the operation spearheaded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, who in 2010 revolutionized a two-pronged fundraising approach to raise and spend as much money as possible: Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that can raise unlimited money without having to disclose the names of donors, and American Crossroads, a post-Citizens United breed of political action committee called a “super PAC” that can spend unlimited independent expenditures for or against candidates.
These groups spent a combined $70 million in the months between the Citizens United ruling and Election Day. Their joint fundraising goal in the 2012 cycle is $120 million.
Many on the left say the Crossroads operation is a prime example of the uncontrolled and ultimately corrupting spending taking place in the new system, yet in addition to the Priorities nonprofit-super PAC partnership, there are at least two other Democratic groups organizing in this framework.
American Bridge 21st Century (a super PAC) and American Bridge 21st Century Foundation (a nonprofit), founded by Media Matters President David Brock, have formed a “national war room” of opposition research for Democrats. And Majority PAC, a new super PAC focused on electing Senate Democrats, has joined forces with Patriot Majority, a nonprofit that worked independently in the 2010 cycle.
For these new groups, a major challenge will be justifying to donors their decision to collect and spend the same money that they have condemned as undermining democracy.
They are already coming under fire by influential watchdog organizations such as Democracy 21. Typically sympathetic to Democratic causes, the organization is now criticizing the new fundraising groups for using tactics that they once spurned.