Democratic groups join forces to fight right

June 12, 2012

Faced with overwhelming financial firepower on the right, Democratic-aligned super PACs and advocacy groups are increasingly joining forces in a collaborative effort to bolster President Barack Obama and a select number of House and Senate candidates for the 2012 general election.

From newly formed super PACs to unions, environmentalists and women’s groups, Democratic-aligned organizations are forming short-term partnerships to advance their most immediate goals — whether that means rallying behind a chosen candidate or gunning for a shared Republican enemy.

There’s been cooperation in past cycles between outside groups on both the left and right. Operatives involved in these organizations’ 2012 efforts say there’s a new level of intensity this time, and fresh urgency for liberal advocacy groups trying to protect their interests against a Republican air war that could total $1 billion.

So for the heavily outgunned collection of allies attempting to keep Obama in the White House, there’s some strength in numbers.

“The partnerships are a critical part of our strategy here. We have no doubt that the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are going to have more dollars than us. We knew we could leverage every dollar we have three or four times if we team up,” said Bill Burton, the former White House spokesman now helping steer the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. “It’s a lot more deliberate this time, definitely.”

While campaigns cannot coordinate with independent spending groups, there are no rules barring cooperation between the myriad interest groups on the right and left, which often share the same political goals and compete for the same dollars. For Democrats, fundraising has been particularly difficult this cycle.

They can’t compete for dominance on television and radio with the GOP groups, but Democratic organizations hope to limit their financial disadvantage in the most urgent campaigns by divvying up the tab.

Two fresh examples debuted this week, as Priorities USA Action and the labor giant SEIU announced they would jointly commit $4 million to Spanish-language television ads blasting Mitt Romney as hostile to working people.

As those ads are hitting the air, a coalition of five environmental groups is preparing to launch an almost two-month campaign to boost Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich in the New Mexico Senate race. So far, the organizations involved — the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund — are splitting the cost evenly, according to a strategist familiar with the campaign.

EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said Democratic organizations have coordinated for years — in many cases through the coalition-building group America Votes — but that the teamwork is closer than ever this cycle. In addition to Priorities USA Action, Democrats have formed super PACs to focus on both chambers of Congress: Majority PAC, which focuses on the Senate, and House Majority PAC. Key collaborators include SEIU, EMILY’s List, LCV and the public-sector labor group AFSCME.

“Because resources are tight and we’re up against just an avalanche on the Republican side, we knew right away that none of us had resources that we could waste, nor could we in any way duplicate efforts at all,” said Schriock, who said EMILY’s List would “move money into whatever vehicle” appears most effective in a given race. Her group partnered earlier this year with and Majority PAC to run TV commercials for Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

For the groups that are joining forces — sometimes for a single ad campaign, sometimes over a longer period of time — there may be a limit on the total size of the financial pie available. So far, there are no Koch or Sheldon Adelson-level benefactors on the Democratic side — that is, ideological billionaires willing to pour potentially unlimited funds into their chosen causes.

While upbeat Democrats speak about the collaborative efforts in terms of magnifying their impact, other, grimmer-minded strategists acknowledge that there’s already a degree of political triage in progress. The Democratic coalition recognizes that it won’t have the resources to play in every race it wants — or perhaps even in every race where it needs to — so it’s banding together to try and avert a financial rout.

One strategist involved in the overlapping campaigns said the trauma of the 2010 cycle — when Democrats were simply buried, financially, toward the end of the campaign — has made team players out of a range of groups that might in the past have spent more time jockeying for message control.

“I think there’s a much greater appreciation for what happened in 2010, and our candidates being completely swamped,” the strategist said. “With a pretty wide, expansive playing field, I think people are trying to be smarter about making sure our collective resources go as far as they can.”

Where their interests intersect, Democratic groups are determined to help ease each other’s financial burdens. A bonus, they say, is that their efforts will hopefully show a greater degree of message coordination than is necessarily common in campaigns in which numerous independent organizations are all spending freely.

Both parties have wrestled with the challenge of keeping outside groups on message in the post-Citizens United age, when well-funded super PACs are free to air whatever ads they wish, outside the control of the two major parties. Republicans tend to sweat the issue more, since their party is the one with vastly greater outside money at its disposal.

Navin Nayak, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, said there’s a growing recognition in the left-of-center universe that “there’s no reason when our interests converge, not to work together.”

“I think there’s no doubt that everyone is very conscious of the fact that we’re going to be outspent, and is trying to be smart and strategic about making sure our candidates have the support they need,” he said. “It’s just a reality of us, individually, not necessarily having as much money as we want across the board, as compared to what Crossroads and others are doing.”

LCV and Priorities USA Action both anted up identical amounts for a seven-figure April ad campaign calling Romney a tool of Big Oil interests.

Democratic super PACs have formed three joint fundraising committees in an attempt to kick-start fundraising. Priorities USA has also actively worked to build bridges with other progressive groups: through its 501(c)4 arm, the pro-Obama organization cut a $400,000 check to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund as the group came under fire this spring over its role in the abortion debate, officials said.

Planned Parenthood’s political arm launched its first presidential campaign ads late last month, branding Romney as “out of touch” with women’s health concerns. That’s just an early salvo for the organization and Planned Parenthood officials said there’s more direct coordination on the way.

“Planned Parenthood Action Fund and our affiliates work with a host of other groups to accomplish our goal of electing champions of women’s health,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “As a trusted voice with women voters, Planned Parenthood Action Fund will absolutely collaborate with others to educate voters.”

The GOP’s outside-spending machinery coordinates its activities, too — not by splitting up the tab for specific ad campaigns but by divvying up broad areas of responsibility in the 2012 campaign.

The Crossroads groups, for example, tend to focus on the presidential race and Senate races, while the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund are oriented toward the House. A number of conservative independent groups regularly confer about their plans at meetings of the so-called Weaver Terrace Group, a Republican war council first organized by Karl Rove.

But for those groups, money is no object. Their challenge is less about assembling the resources they need to run aggressive campaigns in the most essential races than about making sure there’s not unnecessary duplication of effort that wastes plentiful resources.

Democratic groups, too, are working to avoid redundancy — only more urgently than their counterparts on the right, since their resources are more limited. To some operatives, it’s become a credo that no two Democratic-aligned groups should be performing the same set of tasks.

That line of thinking has produced partnerships like the one between American Bridge 21st Century — a Democratic super PAC focused on opposition research and candidate tracking — and Majority PAC.

Those two organizations have put out memos together targeting Republican Senate candidates and last week unveiled an online campaign targeting Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the GOP Senate candidate who defeated Sen. Dick Lugar in a primary last month. American Bridge has also collaborated with Priorities USA Action on research hits and Web videos, a practice both groups expect to continue.

“Coordination not only provides for more resources, it allows us to really dig deep to find out the best and most efficient ways to communicate with voters,” said Ty Matsdorf, the war room director at American Bridge. “On a practical level, strong coordination prevents duplication of efforts, which means more streamlined and effective voter contact. It also allows, particularly on the congressional level, for more localized messages.”

Rebecca Lambe, a strategist for Majority PAC, said the group “works closely” with other, similar ones on Senate races across the country.

“With Karl Rove and the Koch brothers funneling hundreds of millions of dollars from oil barons and insurance companies into misleading attacks against Democratic candidates, our allies are coordinating efforts so that every dollar is spent as efficiently as possible,” she said.