April 29, 2011; Source: The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room | Recently resigned White House senior staff Bill Burton (former deputy press secretary) and Sean Sweeney (former advisor to chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel) have created new political fundraising organizations for the 2012 election campaign. Modeled on Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action intend to raise $120 million.
Like one of the Crossroads arms, Priorities USA is organized as a nonprofit 501(c)(4) to allow for anonymous contributions, an increasing practice in the wake of the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court that unleashed unlimited special interest donations.
If you’re a Democrat concerned about countering the campaign fundraising prowess of the Republicans that succeeded in taking the House of Representatives and almost captured the Senate in 2010, this is a heartening, realpolitik move. As Burton put it, “Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Burton’s initial partners in Priorities USA are Democratic heavyweights, including Paul Begala (former Clinton advisor), Ellen Malcolm (founder of EMILY’s List), Harold Ickes (former Clinton Administration deputy chief of staff), and Rob McKay (chairman of the Democracy Alliance and president of the McKay Foundation), and initial funding commitments apparently have been made by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg.
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The White House has maintained its distance from the Burton/Sweeney effort, with press secretary Jay Carney commenting that “We don’t control outside groups. These are not people working for the administration.” The President in the past has condemned groups like Crossroads GPS and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and Burton himself has spoken of the need for transparency, but the feeling among Democratic donors is that they have no choice but to play by the rules of the game if they want to compete with the Republicans.
It may be the rules of the game, but the use of 501(c)(4) tax exempts as venues to encourage the flow of secret campaign donations still rankles campaign finance advocates. Public Citizen’s Craig Holman expressed his hope that President Obama would condemn Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action as he condemned secret donations flowing to the Rove and Koch operations.
Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center contends that this demonstrates that disclosure legislation is still needed to counter “the threat of secret money flooding our elections . . . whether it’s Democrats or Republicans.”—Rick Cohen