Correction: ●A graphic with the continuation of a March 1 Page One article about Democrats’ embrace of super PACs included an incorrect photograph. The capsule profile of William P. Hite, general president of the United Association, was illustrated with a photo of William R. Hite Jr., superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.
As Democratic officials rely more than ever on the big-money super PACs they once scorned, party strategists and donors are caught in sharp disagreements over how to use the newly influential independent organizations.
Tensions are simmering over whether Priorities USA Action and other Democratic groups that can accept unlimited contributions are too focused on the 2016 presidential race and a potential Hillary Rodham Clinton candidacy, even as Democrats face a costly, uphill fight this year to retain a thin Senate majority and gain seats in the House.
The importance of focusing on the elections this November was a topic of considerable chatter this week as President Obama addressed activists and donors at a Washington meeting of Organizing for Action (OFA), his issues-oriented grass-roots group. Some party leaders are grumbling that the nonprofit organization, which raised more than $26 million last year, has been working to rally support for Obama’s health-care overhaul but is not running television ads aimed at boosting vulnerable Democratic incumbents who are under fire for their support of the measure.
Concerns over the early focus on Clinton came into view this week when the executive director of Priorities USA, which is backed by Hollywood moguls and other top pro-Clinton donors, sent a letter assuring donors that the group would not “big-foot” other party super PACs that are working to help candidates in this year’s congressional elections. The letter asked party benefactors to direct money to 2014 efforts.
After the missive, the House and Senate super PACs each got $500,000 from the plumbers and pipe fitters union, whose president is on the Priorities USA board.
Still, worries remain among leading Democratic figures that the early 2016 buildup is distracting from the urgent need to combat well-funded groups on the right this year.
“It is much too early, and I don’t think it is particularly helpful to have that kind of focus on 2016,” said Peter Buttenwieser, a Philadelphia education consultant and major donor. “In terms of someone who cares about the Senate and the 2014 election, I find those things to be diverting and getting in the way.”
The debate over tactics and resources has gained steam in recent months as party officials and donors have moved swiftly to accept, and even embrace, the growing role of super PACs and other independent groups that many Democrats have criticized for giving the wealthy too much influence over politics.
With each move — building donor lists, organizing volunteers and hiring staff — these groups are in effect supplanting the role of the traditional party organization, only without a built-in framework for picking leaders, setting goals and accounting for spending.
Their expansion further pulls the center of political gravity away from the Democratic National Committee, which is struggling to pay off nearly $16 million in debt from 2012.
Priorities USA, practically a political outcast when it was launched three years ago by two former White House staffers, has a new board of directors with a membership list befitting the national party itself — including labor officials, corporate lobbyists, seasoned political operatives, a former governor and Obama’s 2012 campaign manager.
There is now a near-universal view among top donors and strategists that the party needs its own big-money groups to compete with the growing role such groups are playing on the right.
That consensus has grown as Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative advocacy group supported by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has poured nearly $29 million into ads against vulnerable congressional Democrats in the past six months.
Obama has agreed to headline fundraisers this year for super PACs raising money to boost Democratic House and Senate candidates — the first time he will appear at events for such groups.
“The proliferation of money in politics continues to be a big concern, but it’s also a reality,” longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod said. “You can’t play by one set of rules while the other side is playing by another.”
But as Democrats have rushed to build out their super PAC infrastructure, Axelrod and other leading party strategists have expressed concern about the early burst of 2016 energy.
“With the Senate seriously at risk, and the Koch Brothers spending prodigiously,” he wrote on Twitter on Feb. 6, “shouldn’t Dem funders be focused on ’14 and not ’16 races?”
In an e-mail Thursday, Axelrod said he was not referring to any specific group. He said, “Generally, I think efforts should be focused on this election, in which the stakes are very large, before Democrats become consumed by the next.”
As big donors gathered in Washington this week to attend meetings of OFA and the DNC, some operatives said party financiers need to be pushed to back the midterm efforts.
“House and Senate Majority PACs have been able to go up against AFP in a handful of incumbent districts to reduce the disparity,” said one senior strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The problem is that there are not enough resources to defend against the breadth and intensity of these attacks.”
Organizers of the 2016 super PACs say that they agree the party must focus for now on the midterms, and some moved this week to quell concerns. Priorities USA, which has been soliciting seven-figure pledges from donors for 2016, has scrambled to emphasize its support for this year’s campaigns. The group is contemplating ways to assist Democratic governors and help expand the party’s voter pool this year.
“Priorities USA Action is all-in for 2014,” senior strategist Paul Begala said. “We will not aggressively raise for 2016 until after the midterms.”
The group also urged its contributors to donate to the two Democratic congressional super PACs and noted that it has given each of the groups $250,000.
“We don’t want to cannibalize the resources from 2014,” said former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who co-chairs Priorities USA with Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager.
Officials with Ready for Hillary, which is working to harness grass-roots support for Clinton, said they are going to use their growing network to drive volunteers and donations to congressional Democrats this year. Postcards being sent to supporters in Iowa and other states will seek volunteers to help in 2014 races.
OFA officials have said that the group will not engage in elections, but supporters said that its work advocating for the health-care law improves the landscape for Democratic candidates this year.
Christine Forester, a San Diego donor and co-chair of the OFA advisory board who attended this week’s meetings, said the group’s direct engagement on issues “will get people to the voting booth in a way we may never have seen before.”
Super PAC organizers said worries about the financial advantages of conservative groups have spurred an unusual level of coordination between independent groups on the left.
As they ramp up their 2014 campaigns, the two congressional super PACs — House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC — are again collaborating with an array of environmental advocates, labor unions and women’s groups. Many of the players participate in regular strategy sessions in a conference room at the downtown Washington office of the Perkins Coie law firm.
They synchronize their efforts, divvying up ad buys and swapping polling, and consult with strategists running super PACs backed by hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (I).
American Bridge, an opposition research outfit headed by conservative-turned-liberal activist David Brock, provides the groups with intelligence and candidate tracking.
“One of the lessons everyone learned over the last few cycles is that we are never going to have as much money as the Republicans will. Therefore, we can’t waste a dime of it,” said Alixandria Lapp, executive director of House Majority PAC.
Clinton allies have taken that coordinated approach in building an early super PAC infrastructure for 2016.
Priorities USA strategist Sean Sweeney and Buffy Wicks, who came aboard as executive director in January, set out to recruit a high-powered board, snagging representatives of nearly every important Democratic constituency group.
Brock, whose group has launched a 2016 rapid-response project, and Allida Black, co-founder of Ready for Hillary, are members.
The board also includes Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List; Joe Solmonese, former president of Human Rights Campaign; Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton White House aide; and union leaders William P. Hite of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.
Two veteran campaign strategists who helped the super PAC in 2012, Clinton adviser Harold Ickes and America Votes President Greg Speed, stayed on, joined by Charles A. Baker III, a lobbyist and Democratic strategist who served as a top aide to John F. Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis.
And now there are a host of board members with deep ties to corporate America, including Viacom executive Marva Smalls and lobbyist Justin Gray, whose clients include Comcast and McDonald’s. Jonathan Mantz, who served as Clinton’s national finance director in 2008 and is now a lobbyist at the high-powered firm BGR Group, is the super PAC’s senior finance adviser, while longtime party fundraiser Diane Rogalle is finance director.
Priorities USA officials said new board members are expected to be added soon, including environmental advocates and more labor leaders.
In the coming weeks, the super PAC’s strategists plan to hold briefings with Democratic donors in cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles. They aren’t making the hard ask for checks yet; instead, they are working to secure financial pledges of as much as $1 million, so that when 2016 kicks off, the super PAC will have already locked up resources.
The group hopes to raise substantially more than the $79 million it got in 2012, Granholm said.
“I get the sense that people are very, very interested in helping when the time is right,” she said.
Alice Crites and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.