The Republican presidential primary has been characterized by spates of harsh attack ads, mostly funded by so-called super PACs. So far, however, President Obama, a Democrat, is showing little sign that his campaign will join the super PAC fray.
According to fund-raising figures released this week, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action raised just $4.1 million in itemized donations in 2011. The bulk of the contributions came from reliably liberal donors: Hollywood and labor unions. In contrast, Restore our Future, supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney, raised more than $30 million, much of it from the financial industry. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC $10 million last month.
While the pro-Obama super PAC is still a small player, Obama’s campaign committee has far outpaced the Republican candidates’ committees in fund-raising - pulling in $125 million, compared to $56 million for Romney, his closest rival in the money chase. Obama has also been fund-raising with the Democratic National Committee. Legally, a party can accept larger donations than a candidate can.
“That [super PAC] hasn’t really caught on with progressive donors,’’ said Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College. “There are plenty of ways to support the president without having to give to a super PAC. At this point, the expectation is the president’s campaign committee will be very well-funded, and he’s not going to need the additional resources a super PAC might generate.’’
Super PACs can accept unlimited campaign contributions but cannot coordinate with the candidates. Campaign committees, which are affiliated with the candidate, are subject to strict campaign finance limits.
So far, with no contested primary on the Democratic side, Priorities USA Action has spent around $320,000, all of it on media buys - including web videos - attacking Romney. That is pocket change compared to the millions spent by super PACS supporting GOP candidates. (Another liberal super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, is also raising money for opposition research against Republicans.)
Priorities USA Action was founded by Bill Burton, Obama’s former deputy press secretary, and Sean Sweeney, a former top aide to Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Much of Priorities USA’s money comes from a small number of donors. The Service Employees International Union, a labor union with over 2 million members, was among Obama’s biggest funders in the 2008 election, gave $1 million.
Many other donors came from Hollywood. The biggest donor was film mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of Dreamworks Animation, who gave $2 million. Katzenberg is a bundler for Obama and has hosted fund-raisers for him.
Over the years, Katzenberg has given millions to Democratic groups, including the Democratic National Committee and committees to elect Democrats to Congress. He contributed to numerous individual members of Congress, including former Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy and current Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. He supported Obama in 2008 and also donated to Emanuel, a former representative.
Steven Spielberg, the Academy Award-winning movie director who cofounded Dreamworks with Katzenberg, gave the pro-Obama super PAC $100,000. Spielberg supported Democrat John Edwards over Obama in the 2008 presidential race. But he contributed to Obama in 2004 and in his reelection campaign this year. Like Katzenberg, Spielberg has a history of contributing hundreds of thousands to Democratic groups and politicians - including former Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, now secretary of state; Emanuel; former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
TV and film producer and director J.J. Abrams, a past Obama supporter who created the TV show “Lost’’ and directed the 2009 “Star Trek’’ movie, donated $50,000. His wife, Kathleen McGrath, who lists her occupation as a Beverly Hills producer, gave another $50,000.
Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner gave $500,000. Eychaner heads Newsweb Corporation, which owns TV and radio stations and which sold a Chicago TV station to Rupert Murdoch for $425 million, Forbes reported. A gay-rights activist who has given multiple millions of dollars to Democratic politicians and organizations, Eychaner has hosted President Clinton and former vice president Al Gore at his home, according to Forbes and the Chicago Tribune. He contributed to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and hosted a fund-raiser for him last month. Obama appointed Eychaner as a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Others not tied to Hollywood or the media are also reliable Democratic donors. William Little, chairman of George Little Management, a New York trade show management company, donated $150,000. Little has a history of donating to the Democratic Senate and congressional committees and supported Democrat Chris Dodd’s 2008 presidential campaign.
John Law, managing director of Warland Investments, a commercial real estate development and investment firm in Santa Monica, Calif., donated $100,000. He has a history of contributions to Democratic politicians, many in California, and gave to Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Lenny Mendonca of Montara, Calif., director of McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, gave $50,000 and also donated to numerous Democrats, including both Hillary Clinton and Obama in ’08.
Corrado said Obama, as an incumbent president, has more resources and access to Democratic Party money than he did in 2008 and has been able to rely on the party to defend him against attacks, rather than a super PAC.
However, there are advantages to super PACS: the ability to accept corporate contributions and unlimited contributions. The Republican super PAC American Crossroads, run by Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush adviser, has raised over $50 million and will eventually use some of that money against Obama. “Whether or not Democratic super PACs come to play a greater role later in the election is a question that’s yet to be determined,’’ Corrado said.
Shira Schoenberg can be reached at email@example.com.