Where Are the Rich Liberals?

Changes in electoral law often shift elections in ways that cannot be predicted. Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination in '76 thanks to his understanding of the new primary rules that favored victories in early states rather than hobnobbing with party elites in smoke-filled rooms. The rise of the super PAC could play a similar role in 2012, completely revamping the operation of presidential campaigns. Thanks to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, this new type of group is allowed to raise unlimited campaign funds from both individuals and corporations.

Super PACs started to test the waters of the new landscape in the 2010 election with American Crossroads, a group founded by Karl Rove, spending over $25 million last year, primarily on ads against Democrats in midterm congressional races. There is an independent super PAC raising funds for each of the presidential candidates, and Bill Burton left his post as deputy press secretary at the White House to start Priorities USA, a group that will back the president's re-election campaign next year.

So far, Burton's group and the other liberal organizations haven't had the same success as conservatives. Politico reported last week that the Democratic super PACs are struggling to raise funds:

Initial fundraising pitches have been met with skepticism, even occasional hostility, from some of the party’s most reliable wealthy backers. Some donors worry about a repeat of 2004, when massive outside spending failed to unseat then-President George W. Bush. Others were discouraged by President Barack Obama’s early attacks on outside money. Then there are more philosophical concerns about unlimited money in politics or the possibility that the new groups might help candidates donors deem too moderate, like Blue Dogs.

Priorities USA has only raised $5.2 million as of the latest campaign disclosures, leaving them far short of their $100 million goal before the 2012 election. In total, the major Democratic super PACs have only brought in $11.7 million, according to Politico.
Things are certainly different for Republicans. Earlier this fall, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer profiled Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman who has poured more than $40 million over the past decade into political caucuses, with his prime focus directed at shaping the North Carolina legislature to mirror his philosophy. He targeted moderate Republicans to purge the state party of anyone who didn't share his ideological vision, and then turned his sights on dismantling the Democratic Party's hold on state politics. Pope and his associated groups spent $2.2 million in 2010 on local elections, a staggering sum for state politics, and as a result, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

Democratic donors just don't have that same sense of ruthlessness. Sure there are a handful of rich liberals who help their favored party (George Soros didn't become the conservative boogeyman out of thin air) but most billionaires with progressive inclinations have a hesitance to engage in such rank electioneering. If Warren Buffett was truly committed to the idea of a more progressive tax code, he would sink millions into an effort to replace Senator Ben Nelson, Buffett's home-state senator who dons a Democratic coat while voting with conservatives, with a Nebraska senator willing to vote for a tax increase. Instead, Buffett has devoted his vast wealth to the humanitarian missions at the Gates Foundation. It's a noble philosophy, but one that has created an electoral imbalance in a world where the other side will go to any length to win.

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