The push to raise unlimited contributions by a super PAC backing President Barack Obama’s reelection has run into a number of hurdles since Priorities USA Action was set up by former White House aide Bill Burton in 2011. Major Democratic donors have shunned the group, denying it funds to compete equally with the big Republican super PACs and social welfare nonprofits.
The most common complaint from Obama backers who won’t give to the super PAC is one that the president previously voiced: Unlimited money is bad for democracy.
“If we’re going to be the party of the people, where do we draw that line?” asked Don Peebles, a real estate developer worth upwards of $350 million and a bundler for the Obama campaign. “At the end of the day, Grant [and] Hamilton don’t vote.”
Of those who flood super PACs with big donations, Peebles noted, “People aren’t just giving this money because they care. They’re giving money to influence the government.”
Warren Buffett, the third-richest man on Earth, criticized super PACs at a May shareholders meeting: “I don’t want to see democracy go in that direction. … You have to take a stand someplace.”
In February, as it became clear that Republican super PACs and other groups would be able to raise and spend well over $100 million in the 2012 election, the president embraced Priorities USA Action, albeit still with reservation, and had his campaign state that he supported its efforts.
Fundraising for the group had been moribund before that. In January it didn’t even crack $100,000 in contributions. Since then, donations have ticked up, but not to the levels seen by the Republican groups.
Priorities USA Action has raised $8.9 million through the end of March, making it the fourth best-financed super PAC. That’s a fraction of what the big Republican guns — the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future ($51.9 million) and the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads ($28 million) — have pulled in. Social welfare nonprofits, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts without disclosing their donors, are likely to raise tens of millions for Republicans as well.
Well-known Democratic donors have shied away from Priorities USA Action for reasons that go beyond a distaste for dollar-driven democracy.
Billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis have both avoided giving money to groups that focus on television advertising. Before this campaign, the two men were the only donors to have given in excess of $20 million to political committees in one election cycle, when they funded efforts to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004.
Lewis’ spokeswoman, Jennifer Frutchy, told Reuters in April, “The super PACs are nearly all about advertising, and he is loath to contribute toward that.”
Soros recently announced that he would begin putting money into super PACs, but only those working to organize on the grassroots level and not focused on ads. “Culturally, the left doesn’t do Swift Boat,” Soros adviser Michael Vachon told HuffPost’s Sam Stein, referring to the ad campaign run by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to smear the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry.