On a conference call with members of President Obama's 2012 reelection committee Monday evening, campaign manager Jim Messina announced that donors should start funding Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC run by two former White House staffers, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney.
The move was a remarkable shift in approach toward the independent political expenditure groups, whose role in the political process Obama has criticized and from which his campaign had sought to keep distance.
"Given the amount of money that the Republican super PACs have raised we decided to express more explicitly support for Priorities USA and its mission which is reelecting the president," a top campaign official told ABC News.
Just seven months earlier, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt assured, "Neither the President nor his campaign staff or aides will fundraise for super PACs," according to the LA Times.
As the influence of pro-Republican super PACs has come into focus during the GOP presidential primary, however, that sentiment changed, drawing new focus to the men who tried to level the playing field on the Democratic side.
Burton and Sweeney left the White House in February 2011 to start Priorities USA to explicitly compete with the Republican groups to defend Obama and his record with the help of unlimited pro-Democratic cash.
Priorities USA Action, the super PAC arm of the organization, can raise and spend unlimited funds, including from corporations and unions, on overt electioneering. It must also disclose the names and amounts of its donors. Priorities USA, the non-profit 501c component of the group, does not disclose its donors, but can't do overt electioneering - only issue/policy advocacy.
The Obama campaign is encouraging support for the super PAC - the one that discloses.
You may recall the president made a big issue opposing the non-disclosing groups in the 2010 midterm elections in which Democrats lost the House. Specifically President Obama repeatedly protested the way these groups filled the airwaves with television ads - essentially from anonymous contributors.
"They don't have the courage to stand up and disclose their identities," President Obama said on Oct. 15, 2010, of these groups' donors while campaigning in Wilmington, Del. "They could be insurance companies or Wall Street banks or even foreign-owned corporations. We will not know because there's no disclosure. But this isn't just a threat to the Democrats: It's a threat to our democracy."
Messina said on the call this evening, and emailed supporters, that Republican Super PACs have "spent more than $40 million on television and radio, almost all of it for negative ads," just in the last few months.
"Last week, filings showed that the Super PAC affiliated with Mitt Romney's campaign raised $30 million in 2011 from fewer than 200 contributors, most of them from the financial sector. Governor Romney personally helped raise money for this group, which is run by some of his closest allies…With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm."
Priorities USA Action posted comparatively weak fundraising totals for 2011, raising just $4.4 million in all, per its filing with the Federal Election Commission, and ending the year with just $1.5 million cash on hand. The donor base was also small - only 46 individuals gave in the second half of last year. Most of them are Obama campaign donors from 2008 and 2012 who maxed out and wanted to give more; two of the most notable and generous are Jeffrey Katzenberg ($2 M) and Steven Spielberg ($100,000).
Senior campaign and White House officials as well as some Cabinet members will appear at events that raise money for Priorities USA Action though they themselves will not solicit funds, the campaign official said. (Cabinet officials who raise money for the campaign include Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan; those who don't include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder.)
Messina noted that "the President, Vice President, and First Lady will not be a part of this effort; their political activity will remain focused on the President's campaign." "As has become evident in the past month, the only enthusiasm in the Republican Party is among oil company billionaires and investment bankers on Wall Street looking to defeat President Obama," Burton said in a statement. "We're committed to providing a balance to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers who have pledged more than half a billion dollars to their effort."
-Jake Tapper and Devin Dwyer