GOP fundraising could tilt Congress rightward

The real impact of super PAC money this fall could be in delivering President Obama a Pyrrhic victory

Published July 6, 2012 12:26PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney has apparently posted his second consecutive month of stellar fun-raising. His campaign hasn’t officially released any figures yet, but it has sent word that the Romney team and the Republican National Committee’s Romney Victory Fund jointly raked in at least $100 million in June - $23 million better than Romney’s May haul, which also raised eyebrows, and the highest single-month total ever for a GOP candidate.

It may be a few days before numbers for Barack Obama’s campaign are available, but the assumption is that the president was again outraised by his opponent in June. In May, Obama took in $16 million less than Romney.

As word of Romney’s big month spread late Thursday, Obama’s team sought to downplay the news. "It seems to me that they were looking for some good news today, and this is the best they had,” David Axelrod said.

At the outset of the campaign, it was assumed that Obama, who took in $750 million during his 2008 campaign, would raise more money than his GOP opponent. There was even talk that the president might cross the $1 billion mark this time around. The hope for Republicans was that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision would help them make up the difference with super PAC money.

But with the election now four months away, it’s possible Romney will end up enjoying a clear advantage on both fronts. Since locking up the GOP nomination, the pace of his own fund-raising has exceeded expectations, while Obama hasn’t been reaping the same monthly windfalls he benefited from four years ago. This stands to reason; in ’08, Obama’s fund-raising was boosted by an epic, months-long primary battle with Hillary Clinton, and his status as a non-incumbent made it easier to build grassroots energy.

At the same time, elite Republican donors are engaged in the super PAC game with far more intensity than their Democratic counterparts, creating an even bigger outside money disparity than many expected a year ago. A Boston Glove review this week found that top Republican super PACs have taken in $158 million so far this year, compared to $47 million for Democratic super PACs.  Theories abound as to why this is – rich Democrats have a moral aversion to super PACs? It’s easier to build excitement for the opposition party candidate? Rich Republicans see presidential politics as a business investment in a way that Democrats don’t? – but Obama may end up being significantly outraised this fall.

And yet, as I wrote last month, it probably won’t end up having much effect on the White House race. General election presidential campaigns are the rare high-visibility political race in which voters tend to form their opinions independent of television advertising. As long as both campaigns have sufficient resources to execute their basic ground and air-war plans, a financial disparity probably doesn’t matter. In Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine feature exploring the Democrats’ super PAC struggles, Bill Burton – who is running the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA – makes this case to a potential donor, easing her fears about massive GOP spending by telling her “you don’t do it dollar for dollar.”

This doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Democrats to worry about when it comes to money, though. For one thing, this is the first-ever super PAC presidential election; we’ve never seen spending levels like this before, so no one can say for sure what the effect will be. A bigger concern, though, are the other key races on this fall’s ballot, for the U.S. Senate and the House. This is where a gross fund-raising disparity really could cost Democrats, because these races – especially at the House level – don’t feature the kind of widespread voter awareness that exists at the presidential level.

For now, Democrats are holding their own on the congressional front, but it’s still early and Republican super PACs have made it clear they plan to target congressional races in addition to the Obama-Romney contest. Democrats may do the same, but if they lag far behind in resources, it could conceivably cost them control of the Senate and whatever chance they have of winning back the House. This could be the recipe for a Pyrrhic November victory for Democrats – a reelected president who finds himself facing even stronger Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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