Clinton Backers Wait for Obama’s to Cut Checks for Super-PAC

Bill and Hillary Clinton’s network of political donors has a message for President Barack Obama’s longtime backers when it comes to multi-million dollar contributions -- you first.

Through March, only 12 of Obama’s 532 top fundraisers had donated to Priorities USA Action, a super political action committee created to support his re-election. Priorities has raised only about $9 million compared with a combined $80 million brought in by the two main super-PACs dedicated to defeating Obama: American Crossroads, formed by Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, a group backing presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The leaders of Priorities have asked former President Bill Clinton to tap the pool of donors who helped fund his campaign and Hillary Clinton’s White House run. Yet Priorities lacks on its donor list most of the core group of Chicagoans who backed Obama’s presidential ambitions four years ago.

Penny Pritzker, a billionaire businesswoman and chairman of Pritzker Realty Group LLC who led Obama’s fundraising efforts in 2008; James Crown, president of Henry Crown & Co., who raised over $500,000 for the president in the last election, and Neil Bluhm, billionaire managing principal at Walton Street Capital, are among the missing.

Pressure to ‘Ante Up’

“You’ve really got to get that lead group to write checks if you want to generate the momentum for successful fundraising,” said Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in Maine. They need “to write the initial big checks to get the ball rolling and put pressure on others to ante up.”

Their absence is contributing to the difficulties facing Priorities. Other reasons cited by people familiar with the fundraising are philosophical objections to the new super-PAC rules, which allow unlimited donations and sometimes keep the names of donors secret.

Another aversion for big donors: if they give to the groups that are required to disclose contributors, they may open themselves and their businesses to greater scrutiny. They also get little in return from a president whose inner circle doesn’t place a premium on thanking his patrons. Unlike the Clintons, Obama hasn’t rewarded major backers with perks such as White House stays and flights on Air Force One.

Chicago Bundlers

Two of Obama’s Chicago bundlers, those fundraisers who tap friends to drive donations to the campaign, have contributed to Priorities USA Action -- John Rogers Jr., chairman of Ariel Investments LLC, who gave $50,000 in January and another $50,000 this month, and media executive Fred Eychaner, who contributed $500,000 last June.

In total, the 12 bundlers accounted for about $2.9 million out of $9 million raised through the end of last month. The PAC raised $2.5 million in March and had roughly $5 million cash on hand.

By comparison, American Crossroads, an independent Republican group formed by Rove, who was top political strategist to former President George W. Bush, ended March with $24.4 million cash on hand. Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney group, raised around $52 million through the end of March, ending the month with about $6.5 million in the bank. Romney’s campaign and the Republican National Committee ended the month with a combined $43 million cash on hand.

Advertising Campaign

Other groups, including Americans for Prosperity, funded in part by Koch Industries Inc. executives Charles and David Koch, have indicated they will spend as much or more than the Rove-backed groups. The super-PAC this week opened a $6.1 million advertising campaign in battleground states hitting the president on his energy policies. That’s on top of another $6 million effort in January that spotlighted the president’s ties to bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra LLC.

The American Energy Alliance, a nonprofit group that doesn’t disclose its donors, this month began a $3.6 million television advertising campaign in eight battleground states. The commercial claims that Obama’s energy policies have prompted a doubling in the price at the pump.

The failure of Priorities to keep pace with the other outside groups is cutting into Obama campaign’s financial advantage over the Romney campaign.

Obama’s Cash Advantage

While Obama had a 10-to-1 campaign cash advantage over Romney at the start of this month, that ratio drops to almost two-to-one when the Republican super-PACs are added to Romney’s arsenal, according to campaign finance reports.

At the end of March, the Obama campaign committee, Priorities and the Democratic National Committee had $133.6 million in cash compared to $73.6 million held by Romney, Crossroads, Restore and the Republican National Committee, the disclosure records show.

Beyond Obama’s Chicago backers, Priorities USA Action hasn’t received donations from other top Democratic fundraisers including Blair W. Effron, partner and co-founder of Centerview Partners LLP and Marc Lasry, managing partner and founder of Avenue Capital Group.

At a fundraiser with Wall Street supporters, Obama explained why he is urging donations to Priorities despite his criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which led to the creation of them. Simply put, he said he needs the money in what polls show to be a tight race.

Clinton’s Supporters Courted

Lasry and Effron, both of whom initially supported Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, attended that event. Obama said he didn’t want to run for re-election at a disadvantage to Republicans and added that Democrats can’t unilaterally stop accepting money from big-dollar political action committees, according to two people at the March 1 event.

While Lasry and Effron are among the president’s active fundraisers, they still haven’t cut checks for Priorities.

“There is some reticence on the part of some traditional Democratic donors in investing in super-PAC activities since it’s largely seen as a vehicle for encouraging negative campaign advertising,” said Corrado, a campaign finance specialist. Using the super-PAC for negative advertising about Romney would give Obama some distance, a campaign advantage.

Now that Romney is established as the Republican nominee, the race is tightening and it may become easier to motivate donors, according to people familiar with the fundraising effort who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Top Aides Reach Out

Top Obama aides, including senior White House adviser David Plouffe and campaign manager Jim Messina, are also devoting more energy to warning donors about the Republican super-PAC advantage, they said.

“The people who have the capacity to do it will step up to the plate,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. “There is the capacity to muster together large dollar donations in a meaningful way, but I don’t think it will ever be as much as the Republicans.”

The challenge for Democrats in mustering financial support for super-PACs also comes down to economic interests and how far they’re willing to go to defeat a candidate.

So far, there are more Republican donors motivated to defeat Obama by writing large checks than there are Democratic donors motivated to shell out millions to defeat Romney.

With the president promising to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, Republican may be inspired to write a $5 million check to protect their tax loopholes; Democratic donors who write a check for the same amount know they’re increasing the odds their taxes will go up.

“The economic incentive that exists on the Republican side for people to write contribution checks in their own self interest is not there on the Democratic side,” said Devine.

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