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.
“History has shown us that secret contributions in American elections are a formula for scandal and corruption,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said, pledging to closely monitor the groups’ activities in the months ahead.
Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform who was unseated in the Republican wave last year, said, “Democrats who mirror the right-wing tactics of Karl Rove ... do our nation no favors.”
Democrats are reconciling their actions by emphasizing that they are being as transparent as possible.
“Our donors are fully disclosed, and so are our expenditures. Anyone who wants to know where we’re getting our money from can look and see,” said Ali Lapp, executive director of House Majority PAC, a new super PAC focusing on reclaiming a Democratic House. “This is something many of our donors like because they believe in the idea of disclosure.”
Lapp, a former deputy director of independent expenditures at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said donors have already signaled their approval of the strategy: Just days after it officially organized, the group had raised $116,000 to spend on radio ads against 10 Republican freshmen.
She added that there are currently no plans to launch a nonprofit affiliate, which would delve into the murky waters of nondisclosure.
But Burton of the Priorities groups said having two arms does not necessarily create tension: “We let donors know what both groups do and why they are important, and donors can make their own decisions about how they want to contribute and how they want to participate.”
Monica Dixon, a veteran Democratic fundraiser leading the super PAC side of the Majority PAC/Patriot Majority duo, suggested that among her donors, enthusiasm for electing more Democrats in 2012 has overwhelmed doubts about strategy.
“There is just a strong belief among the people we’re speaking with that the stakes are higher than ever before and that we can’t sit on the sidelines in this election,” she said.
A spokesman for the American Bridge groups, Chris Harris, agreed that among Democratic donors, the time for bemoaning Citizens United is over.
“In 2010, progressives were deeply troubled by the decision and we sat on our hands in protest, but then we got stomped by the airwaves and the ballot box,” Harris said. “Politics is a prizefight. When you’re losing, you don’t whine to the referee: You fight back.”