There's nothing like coming up short in campaign contributions to sharpen the focus for a presidential campaign. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is leaving his position as national co-chairman of President Barack Obama's re-election committee, to focus on more pressing business: Raising big money for a pro-Obama super PAC.
Emanuel's fundraising talents are legendary among Democratic leaders, who are increasingly worried that they've slipped far behind their Republican rivals when it comes to super PAC donations. His new role signals an abrupt shift in priorities for Obama's campaign, according to Liz Bartolomeo of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group working to track campaign spending.
Individuals, unions and businesses were cleared to give unlimited donations to political causes under the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Still, Bartolomeo said the Democrats headed into their convention trying to avoid the appearance of courting big money. "They've always been resistant to the super PACs," she said. "They've been a little hesitant to play the game."
Now that the Democrats are scrambling to catch up on big-money donations, Bartomeo said, they're fully embracing the super PACs at their convention in Charlotte, N.C. Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, confirmed at the convention that he will be "helping" Priorities USA Action. The group hosted a big-money reception last night and reported it has been making progress, raising $10 million in the past month. Bartolomeo said the group remains far behind the Republican super PACs. The Sunlight Foundation reports that the GOP-aligned group Restore Our Future had over $85 million as of the end of July, compared to $25 million for Priorities USA Action.
A series of so-called "Super-O-Rama" events, sponsored by the super PACs, are taking place outside the official activities of the Democratic convention. They include a Foo Fighters concert Wednesday night, and a brunch for Democratic lawmakers held earlier Wednesday by billionaire hedge fund investor Jim Simons.
Such gatherings haven't gotten the attention they should, according to Charles Lewis, a professor of investigative journalism at American University and founder of the Center for Public Integrity. "Most conventioneers are not even invited to some of these fancy receptions," said Lewis. "This is really for billionaires only."
Former Clinton administration advisor Lanny Davis complained that the emphasis on the super PACs, and their role in funding negative ads, has only alienated American voters. He said the spending has only led Obama and Romney to a draw in the public opinion polls. "What's the gap between them? Nothing! Who's ahead? Nobody," Davis said. He predicted that the winner of the election will come down to the candidate who talks about what the American people care about.