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Democratic PACs Aim To Even The Score

Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton says Democratic political action committees are just playing leveling the playing field with Republicans.
Steven Senne
Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton says Democratic political action committees are just playing leveling the playing field with Republicans.

"Crossroads GPS is responsible for the content of this advertising." That line, tacked on to the end of political ads airing in New York's 26 th District, is easy enough to miss. It signals the ad as one of many paid for by the conservative political action committee.

The group, founded by Karl Rove, has been pouring big money into television ads for the Republican candidate in the special election — about $350,000 for a week of airtime. It's a tactic that worked to the advantage of Republicans in 2010. Now Democrats want to get in on the action.

Since leaving the White House last February, former deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton has launched his own political action committees, Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. He says he based his PACs largely on Rove's model and hopes to rival the massive spending power of conservative fundraisers like Rove and brothers David and Charles Koch.

Burton aims to give the conservatives a run for their money, he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Just Playing By The Rules

For the 2012 election, Burton says his group is playing catch up to Rove's $100 million war chest.

"We just couldn't sit by and let things that were important to us, our progressive values and candidates that were important to us, get overrun with hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in from right-wing sources," he says.

While some members of his own party say Burton is sinking to the level of his conservative counterparts, Burton says he's just playing by the rules — the new rules.

Thanks to a ruling by the Supreme Court last year, outside groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign contributions. In some cases, they can even do so anonymously. Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court case, gave corporations broad new fundraising power — so Burton doesn't have to disclose his donors.

"We're not going to be left in the dust as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers go rolling down the street, spending hundreds of millions of dollars advancing their right-wing agenda while we're overrun with all their money," Burton says.

"A Big Mistake"

Russ Feingold, former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin and founder of the grassroots advocacy group Progressives United, is one of Burton's biggest critics. Campaign finance reform was Feingold's trademark issue in the Senate.

"I understand the desire to win and to keep up with the Joneses — or in the case, the Roves," Feingold says, "but I think it's a big mistake."

Feingold says Democrats won't be able to keep up with conservative groups like Burton thinks they can. According to Feingold, corporations will drown his Democrats with money. He says taking cues from the 2008 election is a better strategy — armies of small donors instead of massive corporate money.

"If we just look like we're part of this whole crowd with the oil companies and Wall Street, and corporations looking for tax cuts for the wealthy," Feingold says, "people are going to look somewhere else — or they're going to sit on their hands."

An Executive Call For Disclosure

Feingold might not be happy with Burton's approach, but he might like a new executive order being considered by the White House.

If passed, the order would require federal contractors to disclose their political donations to federal candidates, parties or third parties likely to support or oppose a candidate.

Those third-party groups would include Rove's American Crossroads and Burton's Priorities USA. Requiring disclosure would mean closing off the legal loophole corporations have been using to cover their tracks.

"Anytime there are rules, money — like water — will flow around them," says Ben Heineman, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "This is just a traditional problem of how do you tie them down tight enough so there aren't exceptions."

"Unless you have clear law requiring that there be disclosure," he says, "there's a lot of temptation."

If the order does go through, Heineman says, the White House will have to be ready for tough pushback over the constitutionality of the order. Critics on the right may argue that it's a blow to free speech — as they did in the Citizens United case.

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