The news broke in a tweet late Friday afternoon that Priorities USA would be focusing on Hillary Clinton in 2016, and wouldn’t be raising money for Democrats in the upcoming 2014 midterms. The reaction was fast and furious with former presidential advisor David Axelrod tweeting, “With the Senate seriously at risk, and the Koch Brothers spending prodigiously, shouldn’t Dem funders be focused on ’14 and not ’16 races?”
The uproar shed light on the undercurrent of suspicion and distrust between the Obama and Clinton camps. Priorities USA was founded in 2011 as an Obama super PAC and retooled late last year to back Clinton. Clinton looks like a shoo-in for ’16 while Democrats need all the help they can get to survive in red states carried by Mitt Romney. If Republicans win the six seats they need to control the senate, that would sour President Obama’s final two years in office.
Anything that looks like the Clinton forces cannibalizing donor money to stockpile for ’16 instead of backing Democratic candidates in ’14 does not sit well with the Obama side of the divide. But Bill Burton tells the Daily Beast it’s more complicated than that. A former White House deputy press secretary and co-founder of Priorities USA, Burton remains informally connected with the organization now that it has switched over to Hillaryland. The Buzzfeed tweet that sparked the controversy “was read as not doing anything to help Democrats in 2014,” says Burton. But that’s a misnomer. “They’re still partnering with other organizations and helping Democrats out across the board,” he says, citing Ed Markey’s (Senate) race in Massachusetts, Alex Sink’s (Congress) in Florida, along with Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List.
Priorities USA relies on a relatively small number of high-dollar donors, and they’re asking these contributors to defer giving them really big checks until after the midterms so the money can go to that effort first. Jim Kessler with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, describes it as “getting out of the way…more service than hindrance.”
That jibes with what Burton says. “People who have been involved in democratic politics know that donor confusion is your biggest enemy,” he says. The Democrats’ 2012 fundraising was successful because everyone stayed in their lanes, he explains, citing the House and Senate super PACs focusing on Congress, American Bridge providing research and tracking, and Priorities USA, which raised 65 million for Obama’s reelection.
The array of super PACs doesn’t quiet Democrats’ anxiety about being outspent by the Koch brothers, whose primary organization, Americans for Prosperity, spent $25 million in the last six months on ads assailing red state Democrats for their votes on Obamacare, the earliest start in memory for such a targeted effort. When I asked Axelrod to elaborate on his original tweet, this is what he wrote in an e-mail: “My Tweet wasn’t aimed at any one group or people in particular. It was rooted in my sense that the Senate is very much in play, and D groups and funders should be focused on that, because the Koch Brothers and Republican establishment surely are.”
Justin Barasky, press secretary at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, points out that the DSCC and other campaign committees are consistently out raising their Republican counterparts, but that doesn’t take into account the array of outside groups, like the Koch Brother-funded campaign vehicles. What’s happening now on the Democratic side is the brutal and necessary process of triage. “Not even the most diehard optimists believe the House is within reach for the Democrats,” says Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Clinton domestic policy advisor. House Democrats that survived the 2010 midterms, which restored the GOP to power, are a hardy bunch, “and you can make a pretty rational argument about not pouring a lot of money into House races,” he says.
On the other hand, the senate is very much in play and control will likely turn on hard fought close contests in half a dozen states. “So the stakes are higher and the difference an investment at the margins could make is significant,” says Galston, who fully expects Democratic donors to do their part once the threat becomes clearer and key races are fully engaged. Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Priorities USA’s major backers, has already raised a million dollars for Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
The emotions of Democrats are on a tripwire, ready to react at the slightest provocation. They’ve seen the price Obama paid for his lackluster effort during the lead up to the 2010 midterms. Many remember 1994 when the Republicans won both House and senate from the Democrats, casting President Clinton into a months-long funk until he figured out how to work with newly installed House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Galston worked at the White House during that difficult time with Clinton, and now worries that something deeper and more troubling is going on, “a sense of resignation about the next three years.” He hears Democrats say that even if they manage to hold onto the senate, what difference will it make? The sense of powerlessness has hardened to the point where people looking ahead to 2016 seem consigned to writing off the next three years, an unacceptable outcome for the world’s most influential democracy. To the extent that Hillary Clinton, or any present or future candidates, can affect that mindset will be played out on the campaign trail next year. Clinton is not expected to announce in 2014, but it’s becoming close to obligatory that she campaign wholeheartedly on behalf of a senate that, if she wins in ’16, could make her or break her.