President Barack Obama, who has decried the influence of outside groups in politics, is now encouraging his top donors to contribute to the independent political action committee backing his re-election.
“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,” campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an e-mail to supporters last night.
Campaign officials said the decision was made after seeing the Republicans’ so-called super-PACs emerge as the dominant spending force in the party’s early presidential contests. In last week’s federal financial filings, one set of the groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, reported raising $51 million last year.
The rising influence of the super-PACs has been a topic of discussion with the president for some time, and in the last few days Obama was consulted on the announcement the campaign was readying to make, according to a campaign official who spoke about the internal deliberations on condition of anonymity.
“The campaign has decided to do what we can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA in its effort to counter the weight” of Republican groups, Messina said of the super-PAC formed by former White House aides. “We will do so only in the knowledge and with the expectation that all of its donations will be fully disclosed as required by law to the Federal Election Commission.”
Obama won’t appear at events for Priorities USA Action, the committee’s full name. He will instead send surrogates from the White House, his Cabinet and campaign to encourage support for the group, another campaign official said.
Administration officials taking part in the effort include advisers David Plouffe and Valerie Jarrett, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Campaign officials include strategist David Axelrod and Messina. The officials won’t solicit funds, the campaign official said.
Advocates of stricter campaign finance regulation said the president’s move aligns him with organizations, who they argue, are breaking the law.
“We will be writing to the Justice Department shortly asking the Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Restore our Future and Priorities USA Action are illegal operations,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington advocacy group. “In order to believe that the super-PACs supporting President Obama and Mitt Romney are independent from the presidential campaigns they are supporting, you must believe in the tooth fairy.”
Bob Edgar, president of the non-partisan advocacy group Common Cause, said the administration’s contention that White House officials won’t be soliciting funds “is laughable.”
Priorities USA raised $4.4 million last year, far behind Republican committees. The super-PAC backing Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, raised $30.2 million in 2011, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Super-PACs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations and unions.
While Obama’s presidential campaign has more than his Republican challengers in total donations and cash on hand, the president’s advisers saw their cash advantage being wiped out. In 2011, Obama for America raised $128 million and ended the year with $81.8 million in cash.
Romney raised $57 million last year, more than any of his Republican presidential rivals, and entered the primary season with $20 million to spend.
“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,” said Bill Burton, co-founder of Priorities USA. “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.”
The first campaign official also cited a $6 million advertising drive that began running last month in swing states spotlighting the president’s ties to bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra LLC. The ads are backed by the independent group Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire David Koch. Koch and his brother, Charles, control Koch Industries Inc., a closely held refining and chemicals company in Wichita, Kansas.
Supreme Court Ruling
Democratic donors were informed of Obama’s decision on a conference call with the campaign’s National Finance Committee on last night.
The outside groups playing a major role in this year’s race emerged after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns.
The Obama campaign estimates that outside groups will spend as much as $800 million to defeat the president, one of the campaign officials said.
The official said Obama will support this one group and only efforts that are fully disclosed. He also will continue to do what he can to overcome the Supreme Court ruling including support for a constitutional amendment, if necessary, the official said.