Emanuel to Raise Money for Democratic ‘Super PAC’

September 5, 2012

Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, said on Wednesday that he had stepped down from his honorary position as co-chairman of President Obama’s re-election campaign to help raise money for Priorities USA Action, a super PAC founded by two former Obama aides.

The deployment of Mr. Emanuel — a former chief of staff to Mr. Obama and an aggressive fund-raiser with close ties to the Obama and Clinton donor networks — gives Democratic groups for the first time a dedicated rainmaker of a stature similar to Karl Rove, the strategist who advises a network of Republican outside groups that are expected to spend as much as $500 million in this election cycle. Mr. Emanuel will also raise money for two super PACs supporting Democrats in Congress, beginning with a fund-raiser in Chicago on Monday for House Majority PAC.

“I just find all the special-interest money lined up on the other side, tilting the scales in a way that I don’t want to see. So if I can help, I’m going to help,” Mr. Emanuel said in an interview on Wednesday. His considerable campaign energies, Mr. Emanuel said, would be best spent helping Mr. Obama where he really needed help.

“The president’s got a great field operation, they’ve got a great campaign,” Mr. Emanuel said. “But in the last 61 days, where can I be most helpful? Co-chair of the campaign? Or Priorities?”

As the party’s elite donors gathered this week in Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic convention, Congressional leaders were fanning out to receptions and happy hours for the outside groups that the party once embraced only hesitantly, if at all.

On Wednesday morning, as The Washington Post reported the news of his switch, Mr. Emanuel joined the party’s Congressional leaders in Charlotte at a briefing for donors and potential donors hosted by James Simons, a hedge fund billionaire who is among a handful of Democratic donors who have made a seven-figure contribution to a super PAC this year.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York all appeared, according to people who attended, much as prominent Republicans appeared at events in Tampa, Fla., for the Rove-founded American Crossroads and for Restore Our Future, a super PAC founded by former aides to Mitt Romney.

Driving the burst of activity is deep concern among Democrats at the vast fund-raising gulf between Democratic and Republican outside groups and Mr. Romney’s apparent ease in matching Mr. Obama’s own campaign fund-raising, leaving the Democrats severely outgunned. Mr. Romney is expected to report raising $100 million in August, far more than Mr. Obama and the Democrats are likely to report.

As delegates eyed Obama T-shirts and thronged the bars and restaurants, strategists affiliated with the Democratic groups worked the busy sidewalk between the Charlotte Convention Center and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, one of three hotels hosting the Obama campaign’s top donors and “bundlers,” charged with raising money.

“At the Democratic convention, you can get a lot of work done just walking down the street,” Bill Burton, an official with Priorities USA, said on Tuesday as he bounced between television appearances and private coffees with potential donors. While some had opened their checkbooks in Charlotte, Mr. Burton said — including one unnamed donor who committed $500,000 during a meeting — the groups were more interested in harnessing the enthusiasm around the convention and exploiting the presence of so many elite givers in a few blocks’ radius.

“The goal is to give people a clear sense of what our plans are for the fall and catch them up on what we’ve done so far,” Mr. Burton said.

Mr. Burton’s group raised $10 million in August, by far its best month. Mr. Burton and others raising money for the group — including the Clinton veterans Harold Ickes and Paul Begala and a growing number of Mr. Obama’s top bundlers — have tried to convince donors that they need not match groups like Crossroads dollar for dollar to be effective.

Unlike Crossroads, whose advertising barrages helped Republicans take control of the House in 2010, and Restore Our Future, which claims credit for helping Mr. Romney win the Republican nomination, the Democratic groups have a less obvious record of success. None of them existed until last year, in part because of the initial reluctance of Mr. Obama, who has publicly criticized outside groups and the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, that helped pave the way for super PACs.

In briefings, Democratic strategists working with the group have argued that Priorities USA’s relatively modest advertising buys had helped weaken Mr. Romney and have put him on the defensive over his business record.

“Our mission for the first half of the race was to take Romney’s greatest strength, his business record, and make it his weakness,” Mr. Begala said on Tuesday. “He can’t talk about his business record anymore. And he’s just left with his charm.”

Mr. Begala had just headlined a cocktail hour at a Charlotte restaurant, where a crowd of fashionably dressed potential super PAC supporters enjoyed an open bar. They were young — younger than the millionaires and billionaires who have provided most of the money for Republican groups — some of them rising fund-raisers for Mr. Obama and some gatekeepers to major donors. The gathering to some extent reflected the shape of Democratic super PAC fund-raising so far: a smattering of large contributions from wealthy donors, but far more checks in the five-figure range more typical of traditional candidate money.

“As soon as Soros and Lewis said no, we knew we weren’t playing the Republican super PAC game,” said one Obama donor who attended, referring to George Soros and Peter Lewis, the liberal philanthropists who gave millions to outside groups in 2004 but have been far less supportive this time around.

“We’re going to get there fifty, one hundred thousand dollars at a time,” the donor said.

After standing on a table to address the audience, Mr. Begala chatted with Representative Joseph Crowley of New York, a senior Democrat in Congress. Outside the restaurant, Mr. Begala dismissed talk of a cash gap, though he admitted that fund-raising wasn’t necessarily his specialty.

“I’ve never done this before, so I don’t really know” if Democratic groups are raising enough, Mr. Begala said. “I know strategy.”