Democrats strategists ready to take page from GOP playbook in 2012

House Democrats elected Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader Wednesday, turning to the once-powerful speaker to oversee a shrunken and demoralized caucus.
By Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:51 AM

Major Democratic strategists, still reeling from a barrage of midterm spending by conservative groups, are planning a similarly well-funded campaign by liberal organizations aimed at reelecting President Obama in 2012.

The fledgling discussions - including a conference of top Democratic donors that wrapped up in Washington this week - underscore a dramatic shift in strategy by Obama and his aides, who quashed plans for major outside groups in 2008 in order to rely on their own record-breaking donor efforts.

But many chastened Democrats now say they must fight fire with fire by encouraging the formation of counterweights to the GOP-leaning independent groups that dominated the airwaves this fall. One of the leaders, American Crossroads, says it plans to continue running ads against the Democratic agenda for the next two years.

The change in Democratic strategy illustrates the extent of the fundraising earthquake that has shaken the U.S. political world this year. A series of court decisions effectively wiped away decades of campaign-finance restrictions, helping groups operating outside the political parties spend an estimated $500 million on attack ads and other election-related activities, most of it favoring Republicans.

The apparent change of heart is particularly notable for Obama, who has long advocated strict campaign-finance limits and has sharply criticized the Supreme Court for allowing unlimited political spending by corporations. The shift is reminiscent of Obama's pragmatic decision to forgo public financing in 2008 to outpace Republican nominee John McCain, who agreed to spending limits in exchange for federal matching funds.

Obama adviser David Axelrod, who will leave the White House in the coming months to focus on the president's reelection bid, said in an interview: "I don't think we can put the genie back in the bottle" when it comes to campaign spending by outside groups.

"We're going to continue to urge all of our supporters to participate through our campaign," Axelrod said. "But it's unrealistic to think that you're going to have this deluge of spending on behalf of Republican candidates and not engender a reaction on the Democratic side. It's a natural thing."

Call for transparency

The one line in the sand from the White House point of view, Axelrod and others said, is transparency: Any groups that arise to help Obama's reelection effort should disclose their donors, although it's unclear how such a plea could be enforced. The groups would have an incentive to avoid full disclosure so they could court donors who want to stay anonymous. And the approach could put Democrats at a disadvantage because many of the largest conservative players - such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS - are nonprofit groups that do not have to reveal their funders.

Democratic allies have not always been so outgunned: In 2004, liberal political groups outspent their GOP-aligned opponents by nearly 3 to 1. Many activists who attended this week's conference of Democratic donors said there is a growing consensus that a similar effort will be needed in 2012.

"The will to compete effectively and aggressively could not be greater," said Rob Stein, founder of the Democracy Alliance, a group that funds liberal causes and the conference sponsor. "All options are on the table as we figure out how best to compete and play on even terrain."

Stein also welcomed what he called "an affirmative signal" from the White House to move ahead on multiple fronts. "The system is broken, but it's what we have to work with," he said.

The group, founded after Democratic losses in 2004, is backed by wealthy philanthropists such as hedge-fund manager George Soros and Rob McKay, a venture capitalist.

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