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Wealthy Democrats to brainstorm on GOP's deeper pockets

Major donors, mindful of the overwhelming cash advantage Republican groups have in next year's elections, meet this week in Washington to strategize.

November 16, 2011|By Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
  • Billionaire financier and left-wing political activist George Soros
Billionaire financier and left-wing political activist George Soros (Shaun Heasley / Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — The Democratic Party's wealthiest donors, mindful of the overwhelming cash advantage conservative groups have in next year's elections, gather behind closed doors in Washington this week to make plans for dealing with the coming "tsunami" of right-leaning money and electoral enthusiasm.

The donors — including an advisor to investor George Soros and San Francisco-based philanthropist Rob McKay — will hear from Vice President Joe Biden and from one of the movement's most influential strategists, Rob Stein, who urges a strategy of state-based organizing. The donors will even get a lesson in building a movement from one of the most influential organizers on the right, Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform.

An earlier version of this report quoted Kelly Craighead as saying, "Democracy Alliance is a hub where big progressive money comes to get organized," and described her as the group's managing director. She said, "Democracy Alliance is a hub where prominent progressive donors come to get organized," and her title is president and managing director.

About 150 of these donors will convene for the invitation-only conference. The multiday event is organized by the Democracy Alliance, a group of influential liberals founded by Stein in 2005. The idea is to coordinate in supporting liberal causes the way groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity  and American Crossroads help Republicans.

"Democracy Alliance is a hub where prominent progressive donors come to get organized," said president and managing director Kelly Craighead.

Those active in Democratic fundraising circles said national and state independent groups were looking to raise about $200 million to $250 million for this election cycle, about half of the expected take of Republican-aligned organizations.

Democrats are not lagging in all areas of campaign fundraising, however. President Obama's $90-million haul so far for his reelection campaign dwarfs those of his Republican rivals, and an additional $65 million raised by his campaign has gone to the Democratic National Committee.

When the Supreme Court paved the way for unlimited political giving in last year's Citizens United case, it opened up a gusher of money for independent groups seeking to sway elections ranging from state legislature seats to the presidency.

Nationally, it has been conservative groups that have taken to this new world of campaign finance with gusto. A sophisticated network of groups — guided by experienced operatives including Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, and funded by backers such as the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch — first made its mark in the 2010 cycle. Democrats now anticipate they'll be up against a staggering amount of resources.

Democrats have countered with a network of their own, with groups dedicated to spending money on the presidential race, the House, the Senate and a war room churning out research on the opposition.

Labor groups such as the AFL-CIO have also formed "super PACs," which are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations and unions. The four major Democratic groups — Priorities USA (run by former White House aides), Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and American Bridge — had a combined $4.6 million on hand as of Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

By contrast, American Crossroads alone had $4.9 million in the bank. The figures do not account for affiliated nonprofit 501c(4) groups on either side, which do not have to disclose their donors. In all, the Crossroads groups expect to raise $240 million by next November, while Priorities' super PAC and nonprofit arm anticipate pulling in $100 million.

"We're never going to match them dollar for dollar," Stein said. "We have to be infinitely better in the mechanics in mobilizing our troops."

These troops must have deep pockets: Democracy Alliance members pay $30,000 in yearly dues, as well as an expected annual donation of at least $200,000 to aligned groups.

Stein and others said last week's elections — in which Ohio voters sided with labor in protecting collective bargaining, Maine preserved same-day voter registration and Mississippians defeated an antiabortion rights "personhood" amendment — were crucial in motivating donors.

"I would say six months ago, people were a little down in the dumps. We do think there's a little bounce in our step around what happened last week," said McKay, who chairs the Democracy Alliance board and is heir to the Taco Bell fortune.

Liberal activists see their salvation in state-based networks that resemble the resource sharing and division of labor seen in Republican national groups.

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