Edward Linsmier/Getty Images
President Barack Obama addresses the audience at the 29th annual NALEO conference on June 22 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. With just over five months until election day, many Obama supporters are worried he won't have enough money to combat a barrage of conservative ads and attacks from his well-financed opponent.
President Barack Obama addresses the audience at the 29th annual NALEO conference on June 22 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. With just over five months until election day, many Obama supporters are worried he won't have enough money to combat a barrage of conservative ads and attacks from his well-financed opponent. Edward Linsmier/Getty Images
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.
In early June, a small group of President Barack Obama's top fund-raisers gathered for an urgent meeting in a bar on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. They had been summoned to town for a briefing from campaign manager Jim Messina to the several dozen moneyed men and women who make up Obama's finance committee. But, in a classic example of Citizens United-era subterfuge, a handful of the attendees slipped away from the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel in the South Loop and headed to the bar. Over drinks, they met with Bill Burton and Paul Begala, leaders of the superPAC that is supporting Obama, Priorities USA Action, which is forbidden by law from coordinating with the campaign. Burton and Begala pleaded for help. "They said, 'Don't you know some billionaires you can send us to?'" says one of the finance committee members. "I tried to think of a couple."
With every passing week, Democratic insiders are becoming more and more panicked that, by November, their Republican opponents will have buried them under a mountain of money. After raising only $10.6 million through April, Priorities has picked up the pace somewhat, raising more than $9 million since. But the GOP money machine — that is, American Crossroads, the superPAC co-founded by Karl Rove; Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — has vowed to spend $1 billion combined before Election Day. Meanwhile, the Mitt Romney–affiliated superPAC, Restore our Future, has reported more than $60 million so far, a tally that doesn't even include a recent $10 million donation from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
One might think this juggernaut would jolt Democratic donors into opening their wallets. Instead, it has prompted an outbreak of soul-searching. "So, is this how far we've stooped? Is this what we've come to?" Burton recalls a wealthy Chicago supporter telling him when he came calling on behalf of Priorities. It turns out that the Democrats' biggest problem this cycle isn't financial, but existential.
There's one very obvious reason that Democratic superPAC fund-raising is lagging, and it can be gleaned from a cursory glance at the Forbes 400. "We're not as rich as they are. It's that simple," says John Morgan, a personal injury attorney from Florida whose firm gave Priorities $50,000 and whom I reached as he waited on the tarmac for a flight to the French Open. "We don't have billionaires who are willing to spend ungodly sums of money," adds the fund-raiser who met with Burton and Begala in Chicago. "All we can turn up are people who give $38,500" — the maximum donation allowed to the campaign and party committee combined — "and that's to have dinner with Anna Wintour."
Affluent liberals do exist, of course, but many of those who supported Obama in 2008 have been conspicuously absent this year. Some are miffed loyalists who felt slighted early in the administration, when, as one Democratic insider put it, "the White House was more of a 'you're with us or against us Rahm place' rather than a 'we're all in this together' Obama place." There is speculation that this category includes Penny Pritzker, the billionaire Hyatt Hotels heiress who led Obama's 2008 fund-raising effort but who has only given the maximum $5,000 to Obama's campaign alone and nothing at all to Priorities.
Meanwhile, many of the Wall Street types who supported Obama last election have switched sides in a well-documented fit of pique. Democrats have been working hard to make inroads into Silicon Valley to make up for the shortfall. But so far, the political spending of tech tycoons has remained nanoscale, focused narrowly on industry issues rather than a broader engagement with electoral politics. And, although Democrats can still depend on Hollywood, most liberal Tinseltowners prefer see-and-be-seen fund-raising, like glitzy dinners with the president. (The exceptions have included the $2 million that Priorities received from Jeffrey Katzenberg and the $1 million from Bill Maher.)
That leaves a rump of wealthy do-gooders — the core of bundlers who each raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from their associates for the 2008 campaign. Their efforts, combined with the contributions of countless small donors, helped Obama set a fund-raising record. But while the dollar amount was eye-popping, the breadth of the donors gave it an egalitarian sheen, a crucial distinction to many of the bundlers. This wasn't Bill Clinton–era soft-money spending in exchange for an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom; it was that rare happy moment where principle and financial dominance converged. "Obama brought in a new crop," says a former Democratic fund-raiser. "The first time these people got involved in politics, when they went out and raised money, it was for their brand new guy, a brand new brand. The audience [Priorities is] selling to is people who've never been through the soft-money world."
This time around, rather than simply rally their friends and colleagues around an inspiring cause, these donors are also being asked to cut massive checks. And because many of them share Obama's disdain for the excesses of a broken campaign finance system, the exercise has prompted considerable squeamishness. One bundler who has raised more than $800,000 told me there was "an aversion to the superPACs, to the whole idea of them" in the bundler's circle. "It's left a really bad taste in people's mouths." "I think it's awful," says another bundler who has raised more than $600,000 for the campaign this year. "There's too much money being spent on these elections to begin with. Why would anyone want to give $5 million to a superPAC to elect a president? It's incomprehensible. There are a lot of other things you can give your money to." Such as? Hospitals and investigative journalism, offered the bundler.
Another donor who had contributed a six-figure sum to Priorities was already experiencing serious buyer's remorse. "I'm very much against people who give; everyone who gives to it has made a mistake," lamented the donor. "I should not have given [the money] I gave." I asked whether the stratospheric sums being raised by Republicans required wealthy Democrats to set aside these sorts of qualms. After all, Obama himself adopted this logic when he grudgingly endorsed Priorities' efforts in February. "I understand the argument, that the bad guys are using this. But it's a question of moral standing," the donor explained. "We should have said, 'This is bad for America,' and we should have appealed to the American people. . . . Our side gave into panic for short-term gain." The fund-raiser who met with Burton and Begala in Chicago essentially agreed: "With the benefit of hindsight, they should have said no to going [the superPAC] route — it's disgusting. I think they're shocked at how unsuccessful they've been."
To be sure, not all Democratic donors are so agonized. John Law, director of a California real estate firm, sent $100,000 to Priorities late last year. After doing so, Burton was "like my new best friend," Law jokes, "because no one else was giving." Law is no fan of superPACs either, but for him the calculation was an easy one. "I want the president to win," he says. "It's that simple." Unfortunately, Law is a mere mortal by superPAC standards. "I'm not a multi-billionaire," he says. "A hundred grand is a sizable contribution for me. I can't write a million-dollar check."
There are a tiny number of liberals capable of single-handedly reversing Priorities' lackluster fortunes. But financier George Soros has shown no signs of supporting Priorities; his adviser Michael Vachon told me that this year his boss was "more focused on Europe." Meanwhile, Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis, who gave $25 million in 2004, is currently concentrating on marijuana-law reform, and his adviser Jennifer Frutchy told me that he won't be contributing to Priorities. "He finds the idea of giving one's fortune to denigrate opponents with negative advertisements rather repulsive and doesn't really want to be a part of corrupting the electoral process more than it already is."
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