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.)

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

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