For Democratic super PACs struggling to catch up with their cash-flush GOP counterparts, the news that financier George Soros will soon give $2 million to a couple of progressive groups comes as small consolation.
To be sure, Soros’ money could trigger a wave of copycat gifts from big Democratic donors, as the New York Times predicted this week. But the reluctance of large donors so far to open their checkbooks remains a source of frustration and alarm for pro-Democrat super PACs such as Priorities USA Action.
President Barack Obama tacitly approved super PAC contributions in February, despite his continued opposition to unrestricted campaign money. But Republican-oriented super PACs have built a formidable lead this cycle, raising $156.5 million compared with $43.4 million collected by super PACs backing Democrats, according to Political MoneyLine.
That’s forced the Democratic super PACs to pursue increasingly creative strategies to leverage their resources. They’re targeting supporters in donor-friendly regions such as California, teaming up with progressive activists and labor groups on ad buys and using “microtargeting” to reach out to specific blocs of voters such as Latinos.
They’re also working more aggressively to tap former Democratic officeholders, including President Bill Clinton, to persuade reluctant donors to back the party’s super PACs. Clinton has helped raise money for Obama’s campaign, and organizers at Priorities USA Action have reportedly turned to him for help. Obama signaled in February that he wouldn’t appear at super PAC events, but Democratic strategists said his surrogates may begin to step forward.
“In some ways, the Democrats are in the dating stage with various super PACs,” said major Democratic donor Heather Podesta, founder of the government relations firm Heather Podesta + Partners. “And I think over the next six to 10 weeks you are going to see Democrats putting down major money in the super PACs. They are going to commit themselves to marriage.”
The needle has already started to move at the top pro-Democrat super PACs, including Priorities USA Action, which is focused on the presidential race; Majority PAC, which backs Senate Democrats; House Majority PAC, which backs House Democrats; and American Bridge 21st Century, which does opposition research and grass-roots organizing.
Priorities USA Action collected $2.5 million in March, more than 35 times the paltry $58,815 the group raised in January. Still, the $9 million that the super PAC has collected this cycle lags far behind the $51.9 million raised by Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Political MoneyLine data show. The disparity is even more when receipts at the GOP super PAC American Crossroads, which has netted $28 million, are factored in.
Democrats blame a long list of factors, including a false sense of security among big donors, disenchantment on Wall Street because of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and Obama’s distaste for super PACs and for big-money fundraisers. Many say leading Democratic donors became disillusioned with unrestricted money after the 2004 elections, when they poured tens of millions of dollars into 527 groups such as the Media Fund, only to lose the White House race and field bad press over Federal Election Commission fines.
Since then, progressive donors such as Soros have abandoned high-dollar campaign ads in favor of building a progressive infrastructure focused on grass-roots organizing, Democrats say. That shift is reflected in the recent Soros contributions of $1 million apiece to America Votes, an umbrella group for progressive activists, and to American Bridge 21st Century, which does no advertising.