Democratic super PACs get jump on 2014, 2016

November 27, 2012

Winning changes everything.

It took Democrats a while to warm up to super PACs, but their glee over 2012 is — for now — eclipsing any moral qualms about big money eroding democracy, and they’re already busy at work courting their wealthiest supporters and planning even more ambitious efforts for future elections.

Shortly after Election Day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and top White House aides spoke at a three-day secret meeting of major Democratic donors and officials from liberal outside groups gearing up for 2014, POLITICO has learned.

Among the groups represented: Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that is vowing to remain a player in Democratic politics, even though President Barack Obama won’t run for office again; American Bridge 21st Century, the oppo shop that helped sink Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s GOP Senate bid; the Pelosi-backed House Majority PAC; the secret-money organizing nonprofit America Votes; and the pro-choice group EMILY’s List.

Some of those groups or their allies are considering expanding into state politics, policy fights or even primaries on both sides. And they have already gone back to their 2012 donors to ask for more cash while the euphoria from winning is still fresh.

Their goal: a permanent network of officially blessed independent groups that leverages liberals’ increasing acceptance and appreciation of outside money to compete with a much-better-funded Republican shadow party.

The three-day conference — the annual winter conference of the Democracy Alliance, an exclusive club composed of some of the biggest liberal donors — at Washington’s W Hotel featured presentations by top Obama campaign and administration officials including Mitch Stewart, Matthew Barzun, Gene Sperling and Jon Carson.

Democracy Alliance donors gave or pledged more than $14 million to super PACs and secret-money nonprofits this year after a vigorous debate about whether Democrats should participate in the wave of unlimited political spending that Republicans rode to control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Some of the left’s biggest traditional donors argued that joining the big money fight would be akin to condoning the recent court decisions that sparked it — most notably the Supreme Court’sCitizens United ruling, which Democrats up to and including Obama decried as facilitating a corporate takeover of democracy. They either abstained entirely or were slow to open their checkbooks.

But their hesitance also led to the development of a new crop of Democratic megadonors in 2012, who are pledging to be quicker to respond in coming elections.

“There will be less reluctance — and more willingness — to participate in super PACs this time,” said Steve Mostyn, a Houston trial lawyer and rookie megadonor who along with his wife and their law firm donated $4.2 million to liberal super PACs. “We hope it’s a mutual disarmament, but if it’s not, then we’ll be back.”

Democrats need to balance distaste for big money politics with pragmatism, said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC and nonprofit that combined to spend $15 million in 2012 circulating damaging information on GOP candidates, including the clip of Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment that tanked his Missouri Senate campaign.

“There will always be in the Democratic Party and the progressive community a skepticism about outside money writ large,” said Mollineau, whose group is considering jumping into governors’ races and possibly state legislative and ballot campaigns. “But I also think there were converts won over this last election cycle, and there is now a sense that we need to compete with super PACs and outside groups, and we can win elections if we do.”

That message seems to have resonated with New York author and philanthropist Amy Goldman, another new big donor who gave $4 million in all to Priorities USA Action, Planned Parenthood and other super PACs. “I’m new to politics. I have never felt mobilized before to this extent,” she said.

Goldman said she has already been solicited post-election by outside groups, including American Bridge, and could give early, as she did in 2012, “to get the ball rolling and encourage other donors to give.” Still, she called super PACs “a reality that I wish would go away, but I had to fight on their terms.”

Some top Democratic donors — including Democracy Alliance founding member George Soros — continue to grapple with the morality-versus-pragmatism question. Soros famously poured $24 million into Democratic outside efforts in 2004. But he has yet to come close to that figure since, giving $4.3 million to Democratic outside groups in 2012, despite publicly opposing outside advertising of the sort that most super PACs spend their cash on.

Soros spokesman Michael Vachon attended the Democracy Alliance conference but declined to comment on it or Soros’s plans for 2014 and beyond.

Democracy Alliance chairman Rob McKay said the plan is to keep going, but goals include campaign finance reform. “We spent wisely on every aspect of the 2012 campaign … but we’re not resting, instead we’re mobilizing to get progressive policies passed in D.C. to finally put in place comprehensive immigration reform and limit the effect of money on our political system.”

Sources tell POLITICO that Pelosi and Schumer thanked the donors for their support and an attendee said Sens.-elect Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman were there as well.

Also at the conference, George Soros’s son sat on a panel that examined the role of money in the first post-Citizens United presidential election and assessed efforts to reduce its influence. Jonathan Soros boasted that Friends of Democracy — the super PAC he co-founded and underwrote with at least $762,000 — defeated seven of eight Republican members of Congress it targeted with ads and mail asserting they were beholden to big special interest money. According to an official with the group, it is considering entering Democratic and Republican primaries in 2014 to support candidates who favor tougher restrictions on campaign cash or oppose those it views as corrupted by it.

Jonathan Soros acknowledged the irony of using a big-money super PAC to call out politicians for big money ties, according to someone who attended. And in a POLITICO op-ed last week, he wrote, “What this election shows is that having more money from the wrong sources can cost a candidate the election rather than help win it.”

Another lesson Democrats should try to carry forward into 2014 and beyond, said Paul Begala, a strategist for Priorities USA, is the benefit of having a small number of outside groups with clearly defined duties. By comparison, the GOP may have actually hurt itself by having more better-funded super PACs and outside groups that muddled the general election message and fueled damaging primaries, he said.

“I do think that the demolition derby on the right couldn’t have helped them,” Begala said. “You had the Koch brothers and all their various entities bumping into each other, and then bumping into [Karl] Rove, and then bumping into the Romney super PAC.”

Priorities USA Action, which was represented at the Democracy Alliance conference by co-founder Bill Burton and pollster Geoff Garin, reported spending $65 million attacking Romney. That was a fraction of the $281 million spent on the presidential race by the Rove-conceived Crossroads groups or the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC, according to Federal Election Commission data. But Priorities was the only outside group dedicated exclusively to Obama. Similarly, House Majority PAC and Majority PAC were the only super PACs devoted entirely to electing to Democratic candidates to the House and Senate, respectively.

In 2010 House races, Democratic groups were outspent by outside Republican groups by a margin of 3 to 1. In 2012, House Majority PAC, at times working with Friends of Democracy, helped cut the GOP outside advantage to less than 1.5 to 1, spending $42 million and winning 32 of the 52 races in which it played.

Its donors became progressively more comfortable as the cycle went on, partly because they were able to pick and choose the races to which their money went, said House Majority PAC Executive Director Ali Lapp, who attended the opening reception of the Democracy Alliance conference.

“Those donors who earmarked donations are extremely pleased about how we spent the money,” Lapp said.

It could be tough to maintain the clear lines between Democratic outside groups in subsequent elections, now that the Party is embracing super PACs, conceded Begala, pointing to the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. “The next time around will be an open seat, and you are almost certain to see a proliferation of these things,” he said.

But the challenges could come sooner than that, as Democrats try to find new roles for outside spending groups, and to maintain the attention of donors who mobilized largely in support of Obama and made donations to groups like Planned Parenthood, League of Conservation Voters and labor groups that supported Obama as well as Democratic congressional candidates.

“At this point, that’s not our primary concern,” said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. “We aren’t raising advertising dollars.”

The AFL-CIO’s super PAC, Worker’s Voice, is focused mainly on voter mobilization, but is considering paying for Web ads urging Congress to protect entitlement programs during the looming fight over the fiscal cliff. The National Education Association, SEIU and ASFCME already launched a six-figure ad blitz going after moderate Democratic senators and House Republicans who are on record as being open to increasing the amount of tax revenue the wealthy pay.

Allies of candidates in tight 2014 contests, particularly for Senate, could also form their own super PACs, forcing donors to pick between giving to Majority PAC or the candidate-specific super PAC.

Priorities USA hasn’t decided what it’s going to do, said Begala, who demurred when asked whether it might branch out into congressional races.

“We’re not going to go away,” Begala said. “Democrats have had a tendency to reinvent the wheel every cycle. And one of the reasons the president won is that he built a spectacular campaign apparatus in 2008 and improved and built on it in 2012. We’re likely to follow his example.”