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.
Some Democratic organizers argue that their super PAC fundraising deficit will be offset by their edge in organizing grass-roots and get-out-the vote activities with the help of labor unions and other progressive allies. But Romney and GOP candidates will also get grass-roots help from deep-pocketed groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association.
And that does little to help super PACs such as Priorities USA Action, which has always focused on the air war. As they wait on big donors, Democratic super PACs have set out to spend the money they have as strategically as possible.
Priorities USA Action has teamed up with the Service Employees International Union on anti-Romney ads in Florida and Nevada. The super PAC also partnered with the League of Conservation Voters recently on a $1 million ad buy targeting Romney. The group also joined with the United Auto Workers on an ad in Michigan.
“We decided early that the best way to leverage our influence in this election was to work with partners that shared our goals,” said Bill Burton, a senior strategist for Priorities USA Action and former Obama administration aide.
At House Majority PAC, organizers have launched a Project California campaign aimed at persuading donors in the Golden State to back a slate of at least nine House Democrats who they argue enjoy unusually good prospects and could help flip the House their way.
“This year is a tremendous opportunity for Democrats to pick up seats and for Democratic donors to engage in competitive races in their own backyard,” said Andy Stone, communications director for House Majority PAC. He said the super PAC is “definitely considering” launching similar campaigns in other states.
Pro-Democrat super PACs and other progressive outside groups will also specifically target Latinos with outreach and ads, said Steve Phillips, chairman of PAC +, which has set out to spend as much as $10 million on targeting Hispanic voters in states such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
“There will be geographically and demographically targeted independent efforts,” Phillips said, “which I would argue are going to be in the aggregate as effective as all the indiscriminate spending that some of these super PACs do.”