Worried Democrats scramble to close fundraising gap with GOP

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Jack Lew as the head of the Office of Management and Budget. That was a previous position; he is now White House chief of staff. This version has been corrected. 

September 5, 2012

Democratic Party leaders are working feverishly behind the scenes of their national convention here to cajole wealthy donors into giving more money, a sign of growing concern that a widening Republican financial advantage could doom President Obama and other Democratic candidates.

The anxieties, expressed in back corridors and late-night bar-stool conversations, spilled into public view Wednesday with the announcement that Obama’s former White House chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was quitting his honorary position with the president’s campaign to devote his time to helping raise big-dollar contributions for a pro-Obama super PAC called Priorities USA Action.

Emanuel becomes the latest close Obama associate to pitch in and help the struggling and ostensibly independent group court major givers. Senior White House and campaign advisers, along with Cabinet officials and former president Bill Clinton, have met privately with millionaires and billionaires as alarm has spread about the fundraising gap with the GOP.

On Wednesday in Charlotte, Emanuel and campaign manager Jim Messina provided separate briefings to potential super-PAC donors, joined in some cases by Obama administration officials. At one invitation-only event, Jack Lew, White House chief of staff, was among those who spoke informally with roughly two dozen potential donors.

Bill Burton, a former Obama aide who founded Priorities USA Action, described the efforts as an “all-hands-on-deck moment” in which he and other fundraisers are exhorting potential donors to recognize the gravity of the situation.

“The Democrats are not concerned enough,” Burton said. “The challenge is making people understand that the threat is real here.”

As Obama aides have stepped up their efforts to draw in some of the country’s most well-heeled financiers and philanthropists, some of the conversations have ventured into unusual terrain.

Senior White House adviser David Plouffe listened intently during one session in May as a billionaire donor sought his help for a proposed rule protecting captive chimpanzees. Another participant pressed him about White House action to protect same-sex couples.

Several fundraisers said in interviews that they are battling a reluctance among well-heeled Democrats to contribute big checks to super PACs, in part because Democrats, including Obama, were originally wary of these new entities.

Unlike Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who has participated in fundraising for the super PAC supporting him, Obama has not played a role — though he reversed his opposition to allowing his aides to pitch in.

Emanuel’s move could change the mind-set, said David Rosen, a Democratic consultant who is at the convention and attending private sessions for donors and campaign insiders.

“Rahm will turbocharge the fundraising for Priorities USA,” he predicted.

Emanuel started working with the super PAC in the past two weeks. News of the switch began circulating in Charlotte on Wednesday, the convention’s second day.

Emanuel said in a brief interview early Wednesday that he was “helping, not running” the super PAC. “It’s that simple. I’m going to help where I can to get the president reelected. And this is where I can probably be most helpful in the final days.”

He has begun making calls, some to donors who chose not to attend the convention. “He is having success,” said one person familiar with the fundraising effort, who described Emanuel getting a seven-figure commitment.

Romney officials have told ­reporters that they raised $100 million for the campaign and the Republican National Committee last month. The Obama campaign has not released its fundraising numbers for August, but it has raised less than Romney in each of the past three months.

‘Laying awake at night’

Plouffe, in meetings with supporters in recent weeks, has said he has grown more worried about the financial disparity than the impact of the sour economy on Obama’s reelection prospects. He told one group recently that the success of conservative organizations such as Crossroads GPS, created in part by GOP strategist Karl Rove, “keeps me laying awake at night,” according to a person familiar with the discussion.

The concern led Plouffe to a nondescript office building in Midtown Manhattan in May for a meeting with two wealthy donors, Tim Gill and Jon Stryker. They had been invited for a policy discussion with Plouffe, according to a third donor, Jonathan Lewis, who was invited but did not attend.

The donors, who are gay, engaged Plouffe in a discussion about whether Obama would sign an executive order before the election prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Stryker then asked Plouffe to help with another issue: pushing the government to adopt a new rule adding protections for great apes in captivity.

After taking notes and offering a general briefing on the campaign, Plouffe left the room. Moments later, Sean Sweeney, who co-founded Priorities USA Action with Burton, asked the men for donations. In the weeks after the meeting, Stryker donated $1.5 million to Priorities USA, according to data published by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Plouffe declined to comment through a White House spokeswoman. Stryker, through a spokesman, also declined to comment.

More dollars, higher stakes

It is not uncommon for a president or his top aide to court political donors. Clinton invited several to sleepovers at the White House, and George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove pursued contributors assiduously. But this presidential cycle, the stakes are different, in part because the key donors are no longer giving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but millions.

In some cases, the big donations this time are coming from corporations or individuals facing federal regulatory action, or federal contractors or employees with a lot at stake.

Last year, for example, the union representing air traffic controllers gave $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC, a record amount of support for a presidential candidate by the union. Controllers have good reasons to support Obama, many of them financial and personal. His election ended a three-year negotiation stalemate with the Federal Aviation Administration, and within nine months, it led to a new contract that guaranteed favorable work rules and 3 percent raises every year. Union officials point out that the contribution came from voluntary donations from members, not dues.

While some insiders say Obama expects to have enough money to compete, there is growing worry about the down-ballot effect of the GOP money edge.

Nearly every political cycle raises more money than the one before, but the record being set now is remarkable for several reasons. First, it marks the first presidential election year in which corporations, labor groups and individuals can legally provide unlimited funds to political causes. Second, it has produced a new class of mega-donors who have the potential to wield extraordinary influence on candidates and elected officials and the policies they set.

Rich Republican donors have far outspent Democratic contributors. Las Vegas casino executive Sheldon Adelson, for instance, already has spent tens of millions to help GOP candidates.

The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics predicts that the 2012 election will involve spending of about $6 billion or more, compared with $5.4 billion in 2008.

Emanuel resigned his honorary campaign chairman title in a nod to Federal Election Commission rules that prohibit coordination between the supposedly independent super PACs and the official campaigns. Romney and Obama both have close advisers running their super PACs. But because of the regulations, officials from both campaigns say they maintain a wall between the campaign operations and the “independent expenditures” of the super PACs.

Hamburger reported from Washington. Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.

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