Democrats' Money Panic: Is Obama About to Get Swamped by GOP Cash?

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Liberals increasingly fear they will be outspent in November the way they were in Wisconsin -- and they may be right.

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Associated Press

As the Wisconsin recall unfolded, Democrats watched in horrified helplessness as their candidate was overwhelmed by the other side's seemingly endless millions of dollars. Then came the news that Mitt Romney's campaign was raising more money than the president's reelection effort. And every few days seem to bring new reports of right-wing billionaires boasting of the tens or even hundreds of millions they plan to pour into the effort to defeat the president.

Even as Obama narrowly leads most polls, a creeping sense of doom underlies many conversations among liberals these days: the haunting fear that the left may get so swamped by the other side's money that the president and his allies are rendered simply unable to compete.

Democrats have been acutely nervous about the potential for massive GOP spending ever since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court helped open the floodgates of campaign spending. But in recent weeks the level of alarm has escalated to panic.

"If the president and his allies get outspent like Democrats did in Wisconsin, Wisconsin could happen all over again" in the general election, said Bill Burton, the senior strategist for the Obama-supporting super PAC Priorities USA, which has struggled to keep pace with its Republican counterpart.

Many on the left were relatively blasé about the threat -- until Wisconsin made them wake up and say, "Holy cow, our democracy is at stake," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Our hearts and soul were in this, we invested in this -- our time, our money -- and money and the Koch brothers won the day."

The evidence of an impending avalanche of right-wing campaign spending continues to mount. In the month of May, Romney and the Republican National Committee raised a combined total of nearly $87 million, compared with $60 million for Obama and the DNC -- the first time since 2007 that Obama's vaunted fundraising juggernaut has been outmatched. Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino billionaire, recently pledged $10 million to the Romney-aligned super PAC Restore Our Future and has said he'd be willing to drop $100 million on the race; the Koch brothers have set a $400 million target, while American Crossroads, Karl Rove's group, plans to spend $300 million. Over the weekend, Romney hosted a lavish, closed-door summit in Utah for his bundlers and GOP bigwigs, producing image upon image of the secretive rich ferried around an exclusive resort in golf carts -- a scene out of Democrats' worst nightmares. (The 100 donors at the retreat, each of whom had pledged to raise at least $100,000, received custom Vineyard Vines canvas tote bags, according to the Washington Post.)

Obama, meanwhile, has seen his once-rich lode of Wall Street cash dry up, while the unions and Hollywood aren't thrilled with him either (though George Clooney did raise $15 million for the president in a single night -- a quarter of Obama's May total). As it tries to keep up with the right-wing barrage, the president's campaign is spending more than it is taking in, mostly on TV ads. Priorities USA, the Obama-backing super PAC, has had trouble getting donors despite the president's grudging endorsement, raising $15 million thus far to Restore Our Future's $62 million. The Democratic convention, scheduled to be held in Charlotte, N.C., in September, has fallen $27 million short of its $36 million funding goal after pledging to forgo corporate money and annoying unions -- traditionally two of the richest sources of convention monies. Even small donors, traditionally Obama's forte, have stayed away compared to 2008.

"We expect that the candidates we support will be outspent, but if they're outspent 7-to-1 across the board in November, this is really not a democracy anymore."

As the president himself put it in an email to supporters Tuesday: "I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far." Though this kind of alarmism is the bread and butter of fundraising solicitations, there's ample evidence that the Obama campaign isn't just crying wolf.

And then there was Wisconsin. The largely homegrown labor-progressive coalition that responded to Gov. Scott Walker's collective-bargaining reforms by attempting to oust him 16 months into his term appears not to have anticipated the extent to which it would be outgunned financially. Walker had set a state record by raising $11 million for his 2010 campaign. But for the recall, he proceeded to raise nearly $31 million through the end of May, taking advantage of a loophole in state law that allowed him to raise unlimited amounts for several months of the recall effort. (Wisconsin's normal limit on individual contributions is $10,000.)

Walker's Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, raised less than $4 million -- a little more than one-eighth Walker's total. The 8-to-1 multiplier has spread widely in Democratic circles, proffered as both an excuse for the loss and a fearful totem of what may lie ahead. As Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told me in a recent interview, "We're not going to get outspent 8-to-1, which is what Walker just outspent Barrett .... With the combination of super PACs and Romney, we will be outspent. But not 8-to-1."

The sheer amount of money unleashed by Walker and his allies was the No. 1 lesson of the Wisconsin fight, Mike Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, said in a recent briefing with reporters. "If that's the ratio in the general election, it will be deeply problematic," he said. "Walker was able to command a huge amount of resources, and that matters in a Citizens United world where people like Sheldon Adelson can write $10 million checks."

Republicans will likely pour most of their spending into television ads, an effort Democrats believe they can combat on the cheap with a robust grassroots effort. (The air war vs. ground game issue is the subject of lively and perpetual debate in Democratic circles, with some fretting that a fetish for field organization leads the left to underfund the equally vital work of a blitz of nasty TV commercials.) But that will only work to a point, he said.

"We expect that the candidates we support will be outspent, but if they're outspent 7-to-1 across the board in November, then this is not the America of the last 200 years," Podhorzer said. "If that happens on a national scale, this is really not a democracy anymore."

To Republicans, who watched Obama raise and spend more than twice as much as John McCain did in 2008, Democrats' whining that all this money is somehow unfair is rather rich. "The president's team was hoping for a repeat of 2008, when financial muscle made it possible to spread out the battlefield and make a (successful) play for more states," Rove gloated in a recent Wall Street Journal column. "That won't happen this time."

But the 7-to-1 or 8-to-1 figure actually seriously overstates the amount Barrett was outspent in Wisconsin. In fact, the Wisconsin money scenario could be much closer to what's about to happen to Obama.

The 8-to-1 figure counts only the fundraising by the actual candidates, whereas outside groups spent far more on both sides. When those are counted, the figures appear to be closer to about $47 million in pro-Walker spending versus about $19 million in pro-Barrett spending, though the final reports haven't yet been filed, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Thus, the real ratio of Republican to Democratic spending in Wisconsin was about 2.5 to 1 -- similar to the scale on which Obama and his allies can expect to be outspent.

For Burton, the Obama super PAC strategist, it is something of a relief to see Democrats finally start to realize how dire their financial situation is. Priorities raised $4 million in May, its best haul to date and a near-match for Restore Our Future's $5 million. Thus far in June, the group has already beaten that number, Burton said, as events like Wisconsin make Democratic donors increasingly aware of the threat they're facing.

"There's no doubt on the Republican side, there's going to be a tremendous amount of money. Mitt Romney just spent the weekend with Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, and a who's-who of the Bush Administration to help generate big checks for his campaign and the super PACs," Burton said.

"Democrats," he added, "need to know this is serious."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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