Big Donors Drive Obama's Money Edge

By Matthew Mosk and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The record-shattering $150 million in donations that Sen. Barack Obama raised in September represents only part of the financial advantage the Democratic nominee has amassed entering the final weeks of the presidential contest, newly released campaign finance records show.

Obama and the Democratic Party committees supporting his campaign had $164 million remaining in their collective accounts entering the campaign's final full month, compared with $132 million available for Sen. John McCain and the Republican Party.

The advantage is compounded by Obama's ability to continue to raise money through the election because he decided not to participate in the federal financing program. McCain opted in, meaning he received $84.1 million in federal funds to spend between the Republican National Convention and Nov. 4, and he must rely solely on the Republican National Committee for additional financial support.

Behind Obama's staggering fundraising numbers, compiled on more than 80,000 pages filed with the Federal Election Commission late Monday, are signs that it was far more than just a surge of Internet donors that fueled a coordinated Democratic effort to try to swamp McCain.

Interest among major party donors grew so fevered that the Democratic Party created a separate committee to capture millions of additional dollars from individuals who had already given Obama the most the law allows and who had also anted up $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee.

The Committee for Change, created in mid-July, has become a vehicle for ultra-rich Democratic donors to distinguish themselves from the 3.1 million others who have put $600 million behind Obama's presidential candidacy.

"We kept running into donors who had maxed out to Obama Victory who wanted to do additional money and had the capacity to do it and were eager to do it," said Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia lawyer who recently held a fundraiser for the committee. "They asked if there were vehicles and other ways to do it, and we said yes."

The committee, which has been routing millions of dollars directly to state party accounts and will help fuel Obama's field operations, represents the flip side of the grass-roots fundraising effort that helped turn Obama into the most successful money-raiser in presidential campaign history.

Similar joint committees are active on both sides of the political aisle. Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, announced this year that McCain would attempt to keep pace with Obama by creating a Victory Fund that would collect as much as $70,000 apiece from wealthy donors. The fund disburses money to the Republican National Committee, state party committees, and a separate fund to pay McCain's legal and accounting bills.

Lost in the attention given to Obama's Internet surge is that only a quarter of the $600 million he has raised has come from donors who made contributions of $200 or less, according to a review of his FEC reports. That is actually slightly less, as a percentage, than President Bush raised in small donations during his 2004 race, although Obama has pulled from a far larger number of donors. In 2004, the Bush campaign claimed more than 2 million donors, while the Obama campaign claims to have collected its total from more than 3.1 million individuals.

"It's just unbelievable," said Thomas A. Daschle, the former Senate leader who is a top Obama adviser. "I don't know that anybody could have anticipated that the numbers would be this good."

Even some Republicans have come away impressed.

"The truth is, he is attracting more money at all levels, ranging from $1 to $2,300," said Jan Baran, a Republican fundraising expert. "We're talking about someone who raised money from 3.1 million people. I think he can validly claim a widespread base of support."

From the start, Obama's campaign has designed a fundraising effort that tries to maximize contributions from both small and large donors. That effort expanded in late summer, when Obama prepared to accept his party's nomination and the DNC set up separate committees that would enable top donors to give as much as $65,500 to support his bid.

The best-known of those committees, the Obama Victory Fund, has catered to party regulars who attended one of dozens of gala events around the country, including VIP gatherings for those able to donate $28,500. The Committee for Change has quietly accepted millions more, in checks ranging from $5,000 to $66,900, from celebrities, corporate titans, Native American tribes and several of Obama's most ardent bundlers.

They include entertainment mogul David Geffen, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, actress Annette Bening, the California-based Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and members of Chicago's Crown family.

DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney said the committee will support ground operations in 18 states, including all the key battlegrounds. "It's a way for donors to give directly to the state parties' ground operation, working in the field in support of Democrats up and down the ballot," she said.

The closest equivalent to the soft-money donors of the Clinton era, or to Bush's "Pioneers" and "Rangers," are those who have contributed to each facet of the Obama fundraising machine.

Among those who have both raised top dollar and donated it are St. Louis developer Bob Clark, Florida lawyer Mark Gilbert, and Hollywood moguls Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose children each gave $37,000 to the Committee for Change.

The Crowns, longtime Obama patrons, are among a handful who have given across the board: They raised more than $500,000 for Obama's campaign, they collectively gave $18,500 directly to the campaign, they donated $57,000 to the Victory Fund, and they sent $74,000 to the Committee for Change.

"By both raising the most money and donating to every committee, they become double big players," said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance advocate who helped lead the effort to rid politics of soft-money donors, who were allowed to give unlimited amounts. "This has become the newest form of problem money."

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