WASHINGTON — As the two major parties prepare for an epic battle for control of the Senate this year, some Democrats are questioning the decision by one of their richest political action committees to sit out the campaign and hold its money for Hillary Clinton’s expected campaign for the White House in 2016.
Some Democrats argue that the decision could help the Republicans seize control of the Senate next fall, making it impossible for President Barack Obama to get anything done and perhaps setting the stage to do the same for Clinton even if she wins the presidency. Others counter that the committee always was devoted to presidential campaigns – first for Obama and now for Clinton – and that congressional Democrats will still have plenty of money this year for hard-fought campaigns.
At the center is Priorities USA Action, once Obama’s big campaign fundraising group. Since it helped him win re-election in 2012, the political action committee has morphed into an important fundraising vehicle for Clinton’s potential campaign and is devoting its dollars and energy to promoting her.
The group raised $79.6 million for the 2012 campaign. Taking it out of the action “removes the top echelon,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
This comes as Democrats worry that they’ll need all the help they can get this year. They see themselves up against big GOP spending in a year when Republicans are well-positioned to win control of the Senate. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats.
As many as seven are seen as potential Republican pickups: Alaska, Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Montana and South Dakota.
A Republican-led Senate not only would handcuff Obama during his last two years but also would mean that 2016’s presidential winner is likely to start with a sizable Republican Senate caucus. Analysts expect that Republicans will continue to control the House of Representatives.
”If we lose the Senate and don’t try to retake the House in 2014 it will further erode the ability of President Obama to get anything done for the people,” says a petition posted to the website of the liberal group MoveOn.org.
The petition, posted by supporters, urges Priorities USA Action to reconsider its decision. MoveOn.org itself has taken no position on the PAC’s decision.
“If you don’t help to keep the Senate and regain the House . . . what good will it do you to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016?” wrote one signer, who identified herself as Diane Olson of Santa Monica. “She won’t be able to get anything done as a Democrat. She will have to join the Republicans.”
Former Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod has jumped in as well, tweeting earlier this month, “With the Senate seriously at risk, and the Koch Brothers spending prodigiously, shouldn’t Dem funders be focused on ’14 and not ’16 races?”
Priorities USA Action didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Many Democratic campaign officials and donors said they weren’t too concerned.
“I’m going to be of assistance this year for people who are trying to help advance the causes I’ve been associated with,” said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney and fundraiser. “I would hope that people understand today is what matters.”
At the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, spokesman Justin Barasky boasted about fundraising so far. “Democrats have consistently outraised our Republican counterparts both at the committee and candidate level,” he said.
The committee raised $52 million last year, well above the Republicans’ $36.6 million.
Priorities USA Action’s decision won’t prevent large donors from being active this year, said Robert Borosage, the president of the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future. He noted that a retired hedge fund investor, Tom Steyer, has pledged to spend as much as $100 million to champion climate change measures in the 2014 election.
Political committees supporting certain types of candidates are not unusual. The Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC, for instance, has given money this cycle to help the party’s Senate candidates. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s PAC to the Future has helped 28 House and one Senate candidate this cycle.
Since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that corporations, unions and associations could contribute unlimited dollars to political committees, wealthy donors have been flooding political campaigns with their cash.
Non-political party “outside” spending, generally funds from wealthy donors or special interests, topped $1 billion during the 2011-12 election cycle, about three times as much as was spent four years earlier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those donors were more generous to Republicans. The top spender in the 2012 election cycle was Restore Our Future, which supported Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and raised $153 million. Next was American Crossroads, a group with ties to former Bush administration political guru Karl Rove. It raised $117.5 million. Priorities USA Action was third.
Spending big, though, is no guarantee of success. During the 2012 campaign, outside groups spent about $ 456 million attempting to defeat Obama, while $185 million was spent in the effort to re-elect him.
The more Democrats get active, the liberals said, the better. “If I were the Clintons I’d make sure I was using my influence to get donors active in lots of races and making big donations,” Borosage said. “So I assume if they don’t use Priorities to do that they’ll use some other vehicle. It’s just in her own interest if she’s going to run in 2016.”