By KENNETH P. VOGEL and ROBIN BRAVENDER
A network of Democratic outside groups boosting President Barack Obama and his congressional allies picked up its fundraising this year, but still lags woefully behind Republican outside groups that have already begun an attack-ad binge.
The groups, four super PACs and a pair of linked non-profit groups, raised more in the first three months of this year – $7.9 million – than they raised in the last half of last year, though the main pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, has yet to release its March fundraising figures.
Still, the running 2012 tally for the Democratic groups – which comes from Federal Election Commission filings and voluntary disclosures released Friday evening – is dwarfed by the $21.5 million raised in the first two months of the year alone by the two main GOP super PACs. Those groups are the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads and the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future.
Those groups had $34.1 million in the bank as of their most recent reports, while the Democratic ones showed about $8.3 million on hand after Friday’s reports.
Democrats have used the threat of a massive negative ad barrage to try to get their own donors to write bigger checks. And, in a joint statement, the groups that disclosed their cash hauls Friday sounded that tone. “Republicans and their outside groups are going to spend an unprecedented amount of money to advance their right-wing ideology,” said the groups — Majority PAC, which boosts Democratic Senate candidates, House Majority PAC, which boosts the party’s candidates for the House of Representatives, and American Bridge 21st Century, which has fashioned itself as an opposition research arm for Democratic outside groups.
The super PAC imbalance has been a subject of concern for Democrats up to and including Obama. Toward the end of the 2010 midterms, he began dialing back his years-long opposition to big outside money in politics and, in February, he blessed his cabinet secretaries and top campaign aides to appear at fundraisers for the Democratic super PACs.
The results of that reversal are not yet evident in the reports filed Friday, or in earlier reports from Priorities USA Action, which listed big contributions primarily from the most active Democratic givers.
Labor unions, long reliable funders of Democratic outside efforts, provided the lion’s share of the funding disclosed in the recent reports. They gave a total of $1.5 million to the three super PACs that filed with the FEC Friday.
The Committee On Letter Carriers through its PAC gave $500,000 to House Majority PAC, while the Service Employees International Union gave $20,000 to the House super PAC and another $100,000 to American Bridge.
The biggest individual donor revealed Friday was hedge fund billionaire James H. Simons, who cut a $1 million check to Majority PAC at the end of last month. That matches him with controversial comedian Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action in February, as the biggest Democratic super PAC donors so far this year.
Other major donors revealed Friday include Anne G. Earhart, an heiress to the Getty Oil fortune, who gave $400,000 to American Bridge, and Donald Sussman, a hedge fund billionaire and husband of Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) who donated $250,000 to Majority PAC.
Liberal interest groups also came to the table for the super PACs, including the PAC of the trial lawyer group American Association for Justice, which gave $100,000 to Majority PAC, and the Marijuana Policy Project, which gave $2,500 to House Majority PAC.
Not disclosed were the donors who gave $516,000 to American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, the non-profit arm of the oppo super PAC. It’s registered under a section of the tax code – 501(c)4 – that allows it to shield its donors, as is a group linked to Priorities USA Action.
The groups have transferred cash to their super PAC counterparts, including a $90,000 transfer between the American Bridge groups revealed Friday. But Priorities USA Action told POLITICO it would end the practice, seemingly out of deference to Obama, who continues to assail secret money as having a deleterious effect on American democracy.
The groups have begun airing ads of their own in recent weeks.
Majority PAC has spent about $55,000 this month on ads to boost Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The super PAC also ran television ads for Ben Nelson last year, before he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.
And this month, Priorities USA Action unveiled an ad linking Romney to Big Oil and high gas prices.
The ad asserts that “Big oil executives have pledged two hundred million to help” Romney, and accuses Romney of pledging “to protect their record profits — and their billions in special tax breaks too.”
House Majority PAC spent $1 million in the first quarter of 2012, including $688,000 on advertisements opposing Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Latham, who’s running against incumbent Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, and against Rob Cornilles, who lost to Suzanne Bonamici earlier this year in a special election to replace disgraced former Oregon Rep. David Wu.