The emergence of Priorities as a pro-Clinton ally introduces a heavyweight player into the constellation of super PACs and other independent groups already focused on the 2016 race. The move also shows how the political forces that helped reelect President Obama are increasingly gathering around Clinton and could make it more difficult for Vice President Biden or other Democratic hopefuls to compete for the nomination if she runs.
The people familiar with the plans said Priorities is developing a different mission than Ready for Hillary, a group started this year by ardent Clinton supporters. While Ready for Hillary is focused on grass-roots organizing, Priorities is planning to become what one of the Democrats called “the big money vehicle” that would produce and air expensive television advertisements.
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans for Priorities have not been finalized. Priorities strategist Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House adviser, declined to comment on behalf of the super PAC.
One of the Democrats said Priorities is not planning to become active in the race until Clinton “gives a definite nod that she’s going to run.” Conservative super PACs, such as the Stop Hillary PAC, have already jumped into the fray with attacks on the former U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Unlike federal candidates, super PACs can accept unlimited contributions as long as they do not coordinate their strategy directly with candidates or political parties.
Priorities, started by two former Obama White House aides, was widely regarded as one of the most effective independent groups in the 2012 presidential race. After a sluggish fundraising start, the super PAC ended up raising nearly $80 million — pouring it into a relentless barrage of swing-state television commercials that portrayed Romney as an elitist corporate raider.
Although Priorities spent far less than the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, the group’s early and consistent focus on Romney’s record at Bain Capital put a negative cast on his business experience that proved hard for the GOP nominee to shake.
“They got off to a slow start, but they had a really strong finish, and ultimately they received a lot of credit for the negative messaging that was most effective against Romney,” said Phil Singer, a Democratic strategist who ran the war room for Clinton’s 2008 White House bid. “Priorities has been able to establish credibility.”
Refashioning itself as a pro-Clinton super PAC would be a natural fit for Priorities, which already has strong ties to both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Sean Sweeney, who was the top aide to then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, helped launch Priorities with former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton and continues to steer it. Sweeney worked as a legislative assistant for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, and people in Clinton’s orbit described Sweeney as a trusted loyalist.
Begala, who remains an adviser to Priorities, was a strategist on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and served as a political counselor in his White House. Harold Ickes, the super PAC’s president, has been a top adviser to both Clintons, while Geoff Garin, who was the group’s pollster and strategic adviser last year, was a top strategist on Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
Priorities also has relationships with some of the top Democratic givers, including DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of its founding donors, who gave the super PAC $3 million. Katzenberg remains committed to working with the group, according to a person familiar with his plans.
Hedge fund manager James H. Simons, who contributed $5 million to Priorities and hosted a fundraiser for the group, is a longtime Clinton backer. Chicago media baron Fred Eychaner, who gave $4.5 million to Priorities, is one of the biggest supporters of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, having given the nonprofit organization more than $25 million.
Texas trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn, who donated more than $3 million to Priorities, are actively supporting Clinton’s potential 2016 candidacy and are founding members of Ready for Hillary’s national finance council.
And Qualcomm founder Irwin M. Jacobs, who gave $2 million to Priorities last year, is an early Clinton backer. Jacobs and his wife, Joan, each gave the maximum $25,000 to Ready for Hillary.
Some fundraisers who bundled donations for Clinton’s 2008 White House bid, such as entertainment executive Haim Saban and producer Steven Spielberg, were also big donors to Priorities in 2012.
Since last year’s election, Priorities has been quiet about its plans. The super PAC made a few donations this spring, including $250,000 to the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC, which was used by the group in its campaign against Republican Gabriel Gomez in the Massachusetts special Senate election, according to Senate Majority PAC spokesman Ty Matsdorf.
Priorities also gave $100,000 to Emily’s List, a group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, and has launched a “Madam President” campaign to lay the groundwork for Clinton.
As of the end of June, Priorities still had nearly $3.4 million in the bank left over from the 2012 cycle and no debt.
Priorities would play a different role from that of Ready for Hillary, which has stressed its focus on grass-roots organizing and has capped individual donations at $25,000. With a strong social media presence, its profile has risen rapidly, amassing more than 700,000 supporters on Facebook.
Several longtime Clinton aides are supporting Ready for Hillary; the group is being advised by Ickes and former Clinton White House political director Craig Smith, among others.
It remains unclear whether the super PACs would work together. Ready for Hillary officials declined to comment.
A Democrat familiar with Priorities’ plans said there is “a lot of chaos right now” among the party’s operative class to get in place to help a possible Clinton campaign.
“It’s like a bunch of kids under the hoop trying to get the ball, and everybody’s jockeying for position and nobody’s shot the ball yet,” the person said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.