CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If there were millionaires at Tuesday's happy hour for prospective donors of the three major super PACs backing congressional Democrats and President Obama, they were not the recognizable backers of the groups. And there was not much exclusive about the affair.
At the door of a cozy, downtown bar a short walk from the site of the Democratic Party’s convention, an employee checked off names of attendees on an iPad. But he did not seem to stop anyone, and so this reporter walked on through the door.
The event was one of several being hosted this week by Unity Convention 2012, a combine of Priorities USA Action, Majority PAC and House Majority PAC. The three Democratic super PACs are lagging their Republican counterparts in the race for outside money in the 2012 election by about a three-to-one margin. Priorities USA Action made a bit of progress last month — reportedly its best fundraising month ever, pulling in $10 million.
Unlike what the exclusive, candid strategy sessions for deep-pocketed Republican donors put on by the Karl Rove-backed duo of outside groups at the Republican convention last week, not too much new was revealed at the Unity event, which featured a pep talk from Paul Begala, Democratic talking head and a senior strategist to Priorities USA. Before that speech, a relaxed cocktail and hor d'oeuvres session of small talk took place around the crowded bar. There were casual pitches to donors from the super PACs’ staffers while others lined up to get a word in with Begala or Bill Burton, the former Obama spokesman and co-founder of Priorities USA.
Which isn't to suggest that the Democratic groups are models of transparency. When a reporter asked if he could get in a question, Burton said "no," and quickly passed by.
The most intriguing details on the Democratic outside groups' strategy for catching up came in a five- minute fundraising pitch that Priorities USA Action’s national finance chairman Teddy Johnston was overheard making to a couple of potential donors.
“So far, we’ve had, you know, had some success. The states where we’re up and running, we’ve seen [Romney’s] negative numbers move up,” Johnston said, referring to Priorities advertising. You can see recent expenditures here, but the Federal Election Commission does not require them to be categorized by state for the general election. Johnston singled out the battleground states of Florida and Ohio as success stories. But he said he is worried about Wisconsin, which has “suddenly become dicey.”
“It was tough last year because we still hadn’t been embraced by the campaign yet,” Johnston told the donors, referring to the president's belated embrace of the super PACs. He said that “none of us like having to do this” and a lot of liberal donors are not familiar with super PACs, which he called a “necessary evil.” But he said a growing interest in the groups in the last two months has resulted in a fundraising increase.
Near the close of the pitch, he added: “We need to double what we’ve done in the next eight weeks.” He seems to have been referring to the pace of fundraising.
Midway through the event, Begala suddenly hopped atop a bar table and gave an impassioned speech.
If anything was revealed in this time, apparently Priorities USA Action has $5 million more in the bank already than what has been reported. When Begala asked Burton how much the group has raised, Burton replied: $40 million. That could mean the group has raised about $5 million in the first few days of September.
Overall, Begala said the three groups have raised about $60 or $75 million. He joked that casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend $100 million helping Republicans this election, would call this money brunch.
“We need your help…the old line about give till hurts, that doesn’t count here. You need to give till it feels good. Because if you don’t give, it is really gonna hurt,” Begala said.
He took multiple jabs at Republicans.
“They are going to nominate judges, each one of whom looked like the first or second guy from the left on an ascent of man chart,” to laughs from the crowd. “These are people who think the Flintstones are a documentary.”
He also that election is going to be very close until the end.
“They will have more money. We can survive if we are outspent one and a half to one, two to one, maybe even three to one.”
Begala did not mention that, when the campaigns are factored in, the fundraising game is much closer. The Obama campaign and its joint committee with the Democratic National Committee has significantly outraised Romney, even though Romney is catching up.
He added: “I want to live in an America without super PACs.” But he said if one side has nuclear weapons, he wants them too.
He closed with the following: “I want you to know this: We will always remember the people who were there for us, the people who were there for this president, the people who were there for Nancy Pelosi, they people who were there for Harry Reid.”
The awkward pitch — give to super PACs so you can get rid of them — did not convince all the donors in the room. One man, a Charlotte engineer who has given directly to the president’s campaign, said he probably won’t give to the super PACs because he is not comfortable with “money coming from all over the place,” referring to the flood of money pouring into the political system after 2010's Citizens United decision. He did not want to be quoted because does not want the publicity.
Before the speech, another man, a partner at a West Coast law firm, said he would have to convince his partners because the money would come from the firm. They are also wary about donating, he said, because they are against Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for super PACs. He did not want to be named because “I can’t make any decisions” regarding the donations.
A more exclusive strategy talk could come Wednesday, at a Unity brunch at the home of billionaire hedge fund investor Jim Simons, who has already given $2 million to some of the groups. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are among they top Democratic lawmakers expected to attend.