Reporting from Washington — Over beers in June at the Hawk 'n' Dove, a Capitol Hill bar, two veteran Democratic strategists commiserated about how few Democratic groups were taking advantage of a recent Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited corporate and union political spending.
They decided to form a new political action committee to counter plans by Republican-affiliated operations to flood races around the country with resources. "We said, 'Let's give it a shot,'" said Jim Jordan, one of the strategists.
Though the committee formed by Jordan and his colleague Jeff Forbes has spent $547,000 on two television commercials, the two operatives could be excused if they wanted to repair back to the bar. Two major GOP groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, will have together spent $18 million on ads by the end of this week.
"It's a very challenging fundraising environment," said Monica Dixon, executive director of the Democratic political action committee, called Commonsense Ten. "We're going to go as far as the Democratic donor base will take us."
The vast gap speaks not only to the dispirited state of Democratic donors, but also to the party's conflicted reaction to the Supreme Court's loosening of campaign finance rules, which was strongly denounced by President Obama.
Aside from organized labor and Patriot Majority — a PAC backing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada — Commonsense Ten is the only significant independent operation running ads for Senate Democrats. Nervous Democratic operatives are hoping it will soon extend its reach.
Though the Democratic Party has outraised the Republican Party this cycle, the advantage tilts heavily the other way when money raised by outside groups is included.
Independent groups backing Republican candidates have run $34.5 million worth of television and radio ads on Senate races, while pro-Democratic groups have run only $4.2 million in such spots, according to Democratic ad tracking. Who is behind all the money is murky, as some groups operating as nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors.
The disparity marks a reversal from past elections. Even though campaign finance reform is a core issue for many Democrats, the party in recent years has had the advantage over Republicans in "soft," or unregulated, contributions through groups known as 527 committees, named for the section of federal law allowing them. In 2004, such Democratic committees America Coming Together and the Media Fund raised nearly $200 million total, far outstripping their GOP rivals. Jordan was a communications strategist for the groups.
The Federal Election Commission later fined both committees, along with pro-Republican groups, for campaign finance violations. Committee officials blamed ambiguous opinions from the FEC.
This year, it was the Republicans who were faster off the mark when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that laws banning corporations from direct political activity violated the 1st Amendment. GOP strategist Karl Rove and other party leaders helped launch American Crossroads a few months later.
But there have been no similar efforts by Democrats to create a major operation to channel soft money.
That's in part because Obama has assailed the Citizens United decision.
"I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities," he said in his State of the Union address.
"It doesn't help a Democratic fundraiser when the president is telling people these independent groups are a bad idea," said political consultant Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of MoveOn.org.
The White House declined to comment. A senior Democratic official said Obama's concern was that many outside groups offer no transparency about their donors.
Obama's message is now being echoed by other Democratic officials. This week, a group of state and local officials announced a new project, the Coalition for Accountability in Political Spending, to pressure corporations not to put money into campaigns.
"I don't think we should do the equivalent of the donors arms race, because it's bad for democracy," said Ilyse Hogue, director of political advocacy for MoveOn.org, which last month ran ads critical of the independent expenditures by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
MoveOn.org had its own soft-money committee in 2004, but has returned to running campaigns through its PAC, which cannot accept donations of more than $5,000. "We found it was truer to our principles," Hogue said.
Commonsense Ten has approached the new landscape with caution. Dixon said the group was aiming to "have a completely transparent relationship with people who want to know who we're raising money from and how we're spending it."