Could Democratic fears of a Republican super PAC ‘avalanche’ be exaggerated?

March 24, 2012

A month after Democrats warned that Republicans and conservative super PACs were poised to outspend President Obama in the fall, new fundraising reports suggest that such fears could be overblown.

Obama and his key political allies had more than twice as much cash on hand at the beginning of March as presumptive rival Mitt Romney and his supporters, who continue to burn through most of their money in a nasty and interminable nomination feud, according to disclosure reports.

Even a phalanx of well-funded conservative super PACs hasn’t been able to stockpile enough money to rival Obama, who had nearly $85 million in his campaign bank account at the end of February, records show. Several of the key GOP super PACs also have seen fundraising numbers decline, even in the heat of a nomination contest.

The figures suggest a new possibility: that super PACs could have a more limited impact on the general election than it appears from the Republican primaries, where they have dominated spending in part because most of the candidates have raised relatively little.

“I think there’s a real possibility that super PACs won’t be that important in the general election after all,” said Bradley A. Smith, a former Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission who advocates fewer restrictions on political spending. “Obama’s got a huge amount of money, and he will probably vastly outspend Romney, assuming he’s the nominee.”

Both sides, of course, are furiously spinning the numbers to their advantage. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina warned last month that Democrats would be buried in an “avalanche” of negative super PAC ads, and urged donors to step up in response.

Republicans, meanwhile, cast the Obama operation as a juggernaut that could raise $1 billion or more, and portray super PACs, fueled by wealthy donors, as a vital tool allowing conservatives to close the gap.

“The Democrats are saying, ‘We’re going to be seriously outgunned here, we’re David and they’re Goliath,’ ” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. “But the side that’s supposed to be Goliath is saying, ‘No, they’re the ones with the Hollywood money and the union money. They’re the real money machine.’ Each side has its own spin.”

Super PACs and other independent groups have clearly played a pivotal role in the Republican primaries, which have been much less expensive overall than previous contests. A pro-Romney group has repeatedly crushed his opponents with negative ads in key battleground states, while other super PACs have helped Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich keep their shoestring campaigns alive.

But the groups have spent nearly all the money they have raised on the grinding nomination battle, meaning that whomever survives will effectively have to start over once the choice is settled. That will require soliciting even more six- and seven-figure checks from the mega-wealthy donors who have formed the backbone of the conservative super PAC operations.

One of the biggest donors this cycle, Dallas billionaire Harold C. Simmons, told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to spend $36 million in 2012, half of which he already has donated to various groups.

Another key player could be Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate whose family has helped prop up Gingrich’s run with $16.5 million in donations to an allied super PAC. Wyoming millionaire Foster Friess, who has spent $1.2 million to help Santorum, has suggested he will aid the eventual nominee as well.

Even so, the main Republican presidential campaigns and the top GOP super PACs had less than $50 million cash on hand at the start of this month, or half as much as Obama and his allies, according to Federal Election Commission data. Even accounting for the party committees, pro-Obama forces have a $42 million edge over Republicans, with no primary battles to drain their coffers, data show.

This Democratic advantage comes despite heavy spending on staff and office space by the Obama campaign, which has been busy building a massive grass-roots infrastructure across the country, particularly in battleground states. The campaign spent 50 percent more than it took in in January, though its expenditures slackened off considerably in February.

Spokesman Ben LaBolt said the Obama campaign continues to believe there is a real risk of being overwhelmed by outside money from the conservative side, and it is planning accordingly. Obama switched course last month by giving his blessing to a super PAC, Priorities USA Action, run by former White House aides.

“The Republican super PACs have set a target of raising $500 million this cycle in an attempt to beat the president, and they have had an outsized influence on the results of the Republican primary contest,” LaBolt said.“This is a new reality that we need to be prepared for. Our focus is on growing our donor base, and in particular recruiting donors who can give and give again.”

One of the biggest outside groups is American Crossroads, a super PAC advised by GOP political guru Karl Rove that aims to raise up to $300 million during the 2012 cycle with its nonprofit sister group, Crossroads GPS. The super PAC side of the operation has amassed $24 million in the bank as of Feb. 29, and the nonprofit arm launched a national ad campaign last week attacking the president’s energy policies.

But the super PAC also saw its fundraising dip from $5 million in January to $3.4 million in February, records show.

Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said groups are “still confident” that they will hit their financial targets, and noted that a significant portion will be raised by the nonprofit arm, which does not have to reveal its donors and is more limited in the ads it can run.

Priorities USA Action has failed to match the fundraising of Crossroads and other Republican-aligned groups, while Obama’s campaign has lagged in attracting large donations.

It’s clear that many of the big Obama donors are still on the sidelines, and you can’t raise a billion dollars in $2 increments,” Collegio said. The fear isn’t that Obama can’t raise money, it’s that they can’t raise the money necessary to execute their massive, personnel-heavy campaign plan,” Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said.

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

Deputy editor, National politics
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