President Obama is greeted in New York last week. (David Karp, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama's reelection campaign plowed through more than $44.5 million in May as he tried to drown out a fusillade of attacks by outside groups with a massive television ad campaign, a reflection of how independent players are driving the action of this year's presidential race.
Obama's team spent three times as much as it did the previous month — largely on $29 million for a television blitz in battleground states — as it tried to fend off conservative advocacy groups that have mounted an early and aggressive push to define his record. The campaigns and "super PACs" supporting them filed fundraising reports Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission.
Nonprofit groups have not had to disclose their donors, however. One such organization, Americans for Prosperity, announced Wednesday it was spending an additional $5.5 million on a new ad criticizing Obama's economic record — part of the $100 million the group has vowed to put into ads and voter outreach this year.
The air cover provided by such groups allowed Republican challenger Mitt Romney to hold his spending in May to $15.6 million, a modest uptick from the previous month.
The asymmetrical warfare has alarmed Obama campaign officials, who said Wednesday they expected he would be the first incumbent president outspent; they're bracing for Romney and his allies to pour more than $1 billion into TV ads alone.
While Obama's reelection team is banking on the strength of its field program, the campaign has been forced to devote substantial resources early on to defending the president on the airwaves. That's in part because Democratic-allied outside groups have not been able to muster the kinds of sums their Republican counterparts have to campaign on his behalf.
So in May, the Obama campaign began a series of spots that included positive accounts of his record, Spanish-language ads and pointed attacks on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital.
By contrast, Romney — who aired his first general election ad in May — put $4.5 million into paid media last month, one-sixth of the price tag of the president's on-air spending. The former Massachusetts governor spent just $800,000 on payroll, less than a third of the $2.6 million Obama spent on staffing.
Romney's low staff costs are offset by a heavy reliance on outside consultants. His campaign spent $5.8 million in May for advice on fundraising, digital strategy and other matters.
The Republican challenger had his best fundraising month of the year, collecting $23 million in May, including a $7-million transfer from an affiliated fundraising committee, which will not file a report on its finances until July. Together with the Republican National Committee, the Romney campaign said it raised a total of $76.8 million in May — beating out the $60 million Obama and the Democratic National Committee collected.
Obama is still raising money at a healthy clip, pulling in $39 million in May for his campaign committee and ending the month with nearly $110 million in the bank, compared with Romney's $17 million.
High-priced fundraisers last month in Los Angeles and New York helped his reelection effort bring in 98 checks for at least $40,000 each, totaling more than $4.5 million. Among the contributors were top fashion designers such as Tom Ford, Vera Wang, Kenneth Cole and Diane von Furstenberg and Hollywood figures such as Billy Crystal, Kirk Douglas, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon.
So far, few of those wealthy liberals have written large checks to Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC formed by two former White House aides that can accept unlimited donations. Still, there are signs that its fundraising is picking up: The group brought in $4 million in May, its best month yet, largely because three people gave $1 million each.
One check came from Franklin Haney Sr., a Tennessee and Washington developer who once tried unsuccessfully to become the owner of the Washington Nationals. Haney, who worked for Sen. Albert Gore Sr., was once charged with illegally reimbursing employees and friends for $86,500 in contributions to the two Clinton-Gore presidential campaigns, and two Senate races. He was acquitted.
The other $1-million donors were Barbara Stiefel, a Democratic fundraiser and philanthropist from Florida, and Houston plaintiff's lawyer Steve Mostyn.
The Obama campaign has pledged not to take money from lobbyists, but the pro-Obama super PAC accepted $500,000 from Perennial Strategy Group, which has lobbied for commercial banks and the MGM Mirage, among other clients. The Washington-based firm previously gave $100,000.