Obama reemerges as fundraiser in chief


President Obama talks with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the president’s arrival at O’Hare International Airport. (Susan Walsh/AP)

As President Obama hopscotched from one fundraiser to another here Thursday night, his role in the Democratic Party is clear: He has reemerged as fundraiser in chief.

By the end of June, the president will have headlined 30 fundraisers for his party’s four major campaign committees this year, according to the White House, and he has committed to appear at events for House and Senate super PACs to help counter the money conservative groups are funneling into midterm-election campaigns.

Just as important, he is now sharing the data his presidential campaign collected on supporters nationwide — lists that congressional and gubernatorial campaign committees are using to recruit volunteers and identify persuadable voters in more than a dozen battleground states.

The president is less in demand when it comes to side-by-side appearances with candidates: Several vulnerable senators in conservative-leaning states have yet to invite him to appear with them, and Alison Lundergan Grimes, who secured the Democratic nomination for Senate from Kentucky this week, has made a point of talking about how she would challenge him on some of his policies. But Obama’s ability to fill the party’s coffers and target key voters remains a major asset for Democrats as they fight to stave off losses this fall, and it contrasts sharply with his less-robust party fundraising efforts in the past two election cycles.

“The president is focused on what he can do to help Democrats in this midterm cycle,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier this week. “And that’s ensuring that campaigns and the committees have the financial resources they need — and I think if you talk to Democrats, they will tell you that he has devoted a significant amount of time to that effort.”

Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said any Democrat in a red state who criticizes the president’s policies could not claim to be independent while accepting his financial support.

“Democrats like Kay Hagan, Mark Begich and Michelle Nunn poke President Obama with one hand and collect Obama’s liberal political cash and resources with the other; a brazen display of hypocrisy if there ever was one,” Hougesen wrote in an e-mail, referring to Democratic candidates in North Carolina, Alaska and Georgia, respectively. “If these Democrats want their actions to match their words, they’ll refuse to accept campaign money and resources from President Obama and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Until then, they’re just hypocrites trying to have it both ways.”

Thursday, donors paid $1,000 to $35,000 to meet Obama at a reception at the Chicago home of Michael and Tanya Polsky, where he urged them to “feel a sense of urgency about this election,” followed by a dinner at the home of Fred Eychaner.

Obama’s fundraising stops came after he visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he showcased new efforts to promote tourism in the United States.

This month, the president has appeared at a fundraiser every couple of days. In addition to the two fundraisers in Chicago this week, which benefited the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the campaign of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Obama spoke to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) donors Monday night in Potomac, Md., at the home of Jeff and Lora Drezner. VIP tickets to the event cost $10,000 per person, or $32,400 per couple, according to the invitation posted by the Sunlight Foundation.

“His level of engagement in that area has been terrific,” DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said of Obama’s fundraising efforts.

The flurry of activity has disappointed advocates of campaign finance reform such as Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, who initially considered Obama an ally. She said in an interview that it is now the “Wild West of raising money” after the most recent Supreme Court ruling lifting long-held fundraising limits, and noted that the number of fundraisers Ronald Reagan did in his second term was “in the single digits.”

“It’s a system that’s out of control and the president, the most powerful person in the world, is up to his eyeballs in it,” McGehee said. “While we understand the reality, we don’t understand why he couldn’t be using his bully pulpit more to press for change.”

In 2013, the White House said, Obama did more than 20 Democratic fundraisers. This year, he’s on tap to do eight fundraisers for the DSCC, seven for the DCCC and two joint events for the House and the Senate, the White House said, along with 20 for the Democratic National Committee and one for the Democratic Governors Association. By contrast, he did 10 events for the DCCC in the 2010 cycle, and just two in 2012.

While independent conservative organizations are outspending liberal ones by a significant margin, the Senate and House campaign committees have a financial advantage compared with their GOP counterparts. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports, the DSCC has outraised the National Republican Senatorial Committee by $21.2 million for the 2014 cycle, while the DCCC has an $11.5 million cash-on-hand advantage over the National Republican Campaign Committee.

Behind the scenes, Obama has helped Democrats running this year by allowing them to reach out to the supporters he recruited during his two presidential campaigns.

“He is leveraging his grass-roots network — a network that made him the first person since President Eisenhower to get 51 percent of the vote twice — and all of the data and technology that comes with it available to 2014 candidates,” Carney said. “And of course he is focused on turnout.”

That information is critical to efforts such as the DSCC’s Bannock Street Project, a $60 million undertaking aimed at persuading Democrats to return to the polls during an off-year election.

One Democratic campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations, said they had “received the lock and key” to data so they can “speak to the hundreds of thousands of Obama volunteers who worked in 2008 and 2012, and that’s been enormously helpful in our efforts to build the Bannock Street Project.”

The information has not only helped in key states such as North Carolina, Iowa and Michigan — which Obama won at least once — but in places such as Arkansas and Kentucky.

“In some of these states we’re the last Democrat standing, and for the most part, we’ve had to build it all ourselves,” the staff member said, adding that the participation rates of former Obama volunteers have far exceeded the party’s initial projections.

A DCCC official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss internal activities, said the committee “is adapting the expertise” of Obama’s data trove “to congressional campaigns, which play out differently from a presidential race.”

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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