Democrats gear up to match GOP fundraising effort

April 29, 2011

After taking a beating from outside Republican groups during the 2010 midterm election cycle, Democrats are now gearing up to match the effort in 2012, with one of the most prominent teams officially launching its drive Friday.

Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, two recently departed officials from the Obama White House, are forming Priorities USA, an organization that will seek to raise as much as $100 million in the 2012 cycle. The group will consist of two branches: a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and a 527 political action committee. The structure will allow the organization to keep some of its donors secret — a practice Democrats deplored when it was used by Republicans.

“The mission of these groups is to counter the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove,” Burton and Sweeney said in a memo describing their effort. They referred to the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and the former strategist for President George W. Bush, who have led highly successful outside efforts on the Republican side.

Priorities USA has lined up donations from Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Service Employees International Union, people familiar with it said. Veteran Democratic operatives from the Obama and Clinton camps — including strategists Paul Begala and Harold Ickes, pollster Geoff Garin and Emily’s List founder Ellen Malcolm — are also on board. Teddy Johnston, a prominent Obama fundraiser in Florida in 2008, will lead the fundraising effort.

Although a number of outside Democratic groups have launched in recent weeks with the goals of defeating House Republicans and repelling GOP attacks on Obama’s health-care program, Priorities USA is expected to be the central counterweight to American Crossroads, Rove’s two-pronged group that has taken considerable heat from Democrats for failing to disclose all of its donors.

“In 2010, Republicans spent millions distorting the debate on important issues and running vicious, dishonest attack ads,”  Burton and Sweeney said in their memo. “This is an effort to level the playing field and not allow right-wing activists to hijack the political system.”

The effort drew criticism from one prominent Democrat — Russell Feingold, the former senator from Wisconsin who co-sponsored legislative efforts to limit corporate campaign financing.

“Democrats who mirror the right-wing tactics of Karl Rove and David Koch do our nation no favors. Our democracy is best served by rejecting the fundamentally corrupt strategy of embracing unlimited corporate influence,” Feingold said in a statement.

Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, also blasted the new effort. “Obama’s brazen hypocrisy, in encouraging his own operatives to start groups exactly like the ones he demagogued last year, shows how cynical this president can be when it comes to perpetuating his own power,” he said.

White House officials distanced themselves from Priorities USA. “We don’t control outside groups, but the president’s position on disclosure is the same today as it has always been. . . . He believes it’s vitally important,” spokesman Jay Carney said.

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