Obama, Romney Getting Cozier With Super PACs

Obama, Romney Getting Cozier With Super PACs

By Scott Conroy - February 14, 2012

Within the next few weeks, top administration officials ranging from Cabinet secretaries like Kathleen Sebelius to senior advisers like David Axelrod will begin hobnobbing at high-dollar fundraisers for Priorities USA Action -- the super PAC created by former White House aides to bolster President Obama's re-election chances.

The Federal Election Commission rules that bar such power players from directly asking for donations are no impediment to the implicit solicitation of the big-figure checks that will inevitably pour in.

And so the presence at these events of prominent government figures with direct lines to the president -- and the concerns their presence raises about money buying access in American politics -- will mark another step in the central role that super PACs are playing in the 2012 race for the White House.

Obama campaign officials told RCP that the president reversed course on his 2008 disavowal of help from outside groups after senior strategists convinced him that his re-election hopes could hinge on playing in the real-world campaign finance system rather than his idealized one.

It’s the same reasoning that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has used to justify his own actions, inching closer to the FEC’s line that limits -- but does not disallow -- coordination between campaigns and outside groups.

Last July, Romney was the first candidate to test the implications of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling when he spoke at a New York fundraiser for Restore Our Future, the group created to bolster his candidacy by soliciting unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations.

As the battle for the GOP presidential nomination has intensified, the super PACs acting on behalf of the four major Republican candidates have ramped up their negative campaigning against one another.

Several news sources reported Monday that Restore Our Future, which raised more than $30 million in 2011, was poised to go on the air in Michigan (which holds its primary Feb. 28) as well as several Super Tuesday states (March 6).

On Friday, the Romney campaign announced that it would match Obama’s latest move by authorizing top aides to appear at super PAC fundraisers.

Additionally, a senior Romney aide told RCP that they have not ruled out having the candidate himself speak at additional Restore Our Future events down the line.

By contrast, the Obama campaign says that the president, the first lady, Vice President Biden and Jill Biden will not attend super PAC fundraisers.

But whether the candidates are on hand or not, campaign finance watchdogs are sounding the alarm that the presence of top aides at these events sends a dangerous message about buying influence.

“It seemingly amounts to a recognition by the campaigns that special interest donors are only going to open up their wallets if they’re provided access with high-level decision-makers in exchange for their contributions, and that’s a very troubling development,” said Paul Ryan of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “The Obama move was really a significant step in the race to the bottom, in terms of providing access to special interest donors.”

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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