But still largely missing are the liberal philanthropists and executives who showered $396 million in unrestricted contributions on 527s in the 2004 elections, according to the CRP data. These include investor George Soros, insurance executive Peter Lewis, film producer Stephen Bing and former banking industry CEO Herb Sandler and his now-late wife, Marion.
Together, those five donors gave $73.4 million to Democrat-friendly 527s in the 2004 elections, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. In this election, Sandler have given no super PAC money, and Soros, Lewis and Bing have collectively donated $775,000 to such PACs — no pittance, but only a little over one-tenth of what they gave in 2004.
Democrats offer various reasons why large progressive donors haven’t ponied up this time. Many say donors felt burned after their 2004 investment in 527s — political organizations that may raise unrestricted money but must steer clear of explicit election messages and report their donors to the IRS. Their candidate, then-Democratic presidential nominee and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), lost.
FEC fines imposed on several 527s drew negative publicity. Progressive donors remain philosophically opposed to unrestricted super PACs, despite President Barack Obama’s reluctant embrace of such groups in February. Most importantly, big liberal donors have strategically shifted their focus away from high-dollar PACs, which line the pockets of political consultants, in favor of investing in grass-roots groups organized around issues, many Democrats say.
Officials at Priorities USA Action acknowledge that GOP groups will outspend them this year, but they emphasize their recent successes. The group has aired $15 million worth of ads by leveraging partnerships with progressive allies, including labor and environmental groups, organizers say. The super PAC plans to spend another $10 million on the air between now and Labor Day, bringing its total broadcast spending to $25 million.
At this point in the 2010 elections, the Priorities spokeswoman noted, American Crossroads had raised only $1.3 million. Now the group has almost $30 million in cash on hand. It remains to be seen whether once-generous progressive donors will help Democratic super PACs catch up in time for Election Day.
Updated: 5:40 p.m. | This column has been updated to reflect that Marion Sandler passed away in early June at age 81.