Why Obama agenda group faces pushback from some Democrats

Organizing for Action, an issue-advocacy group that spun off from President Obama's reelection campaign, is going after some Democrats and competing for fundraising dollars.

By , Staff writer

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    Jerry Delaney listens to speakers during an Organizing for Action rally against gun violence in Chicago last month.
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The young life of Organizing for Action – the issue-advocacy group that spun off from President Obama’s reelection campaign – has been anything but easy.

OFA launched four months ago amid high expectations for what it could do to boost Mr. Obama’s agenda. After all, its leaders come from the Obama political machine that won two presidential campaigns. And it has access to the Obama campaign’s massive database, including more than 14 million e-mail addresses and a gold mine of information about supporters’ voting, donating, and volunteering habits.  

OFA touts high involvement, including 1.5 million people who have “taken action,” which can mean donating, going to an event, helping OFA earn local media coverage, or tweeting a member of Congress.

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But so far, the results have been modest. Obama failed to win expanded background checks for gun buyers despite polls showing 90 percent public support. Fundraising has proved challenging: OFA brought in just under $5 million in the first quarter of 2013, only 10 percent of its goal for the year. And some Democrats are worried that OFA is working at cross-purposes with the party’s broader political goals, including fundraising for the 2014 midterms.

“Democrats now serve two masters: DNC and Organizing for Action,” Time magazine declared last month.

Relax, say OFA officials. These are early days. Since he began his second term, Obama has done multiple fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee and other party committees, and just one appearance for OFA. And the effort to expand background checks on gun buyers may not be over. Three weeks after the bill died in the Senate, OFA delivered 1.4 million signatures to Congress urging it to reconsider it. Vice President Joe Biden says he’s going to make another push on guns, though after immigration reform.

“I do think some of these senators doubted that we would be able to show continued strength and momentum on this,” says Jon Carson, OFA’s executive director. “That was the No. 1 lesson for us. That we have to be prepared to do that.”

OFA is also still ramping up its operation. The Chicago headquarters will open this summer. Ten paid staffers are about to be hired in states to be determined for the immigration debate, adding to the existing full-time paid staff in 19 states.  

A map put out by OFA highlighting local news coverage reflects that most of the activity is taking place in blue states, though OFA points to strong volunteer networks in Georgia and Arizona – two red states the Democrats see as having potential for turning purple.

In addition, OFA’s coffers could be in for a big infusion of cash from the wealthy, liberal donors who are part of a network called the Democracy Alliance. At a recent meeting in California, the group recommended that its members support OFA.

But sensitivities among Democrats over OFA remain an issue. Some strategists are concerned that OFA fundraising will take away from party committees. After all, there’s only so much money to go around.

“You sure as heck don’t want donor fatigue to set in a year and a half before the midterms,” says a Democratic consultant who only spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another area of concern is the Obama database, known as Project Narwhal. Technically it still belongs to the Obama campaign, and OFA has leased the data. But what about other campaigns that could benefit from it – not just for the 2014 midterms, but elections this year? The special Senate election in Massachusetts on June 25, pitting Rep. Ed Markey (D) against businessman Gabriel Gomez, is tight. So is the race for Virginia governor between state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe this November. Access to the Obama list is still under discussion.

Party officials say the division of labor between OFA and the DNC makes sense. Four years ago, the first Obama campaign morphed into Organizing for America – an issue advocacy group that was housed within the DNC. But that OFA was underfunded, and seen as having only modest impact on the health-care debate. In the end, Organizing for America was really about gearing up for Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.

Now, as a nonprofit tax-exempt 501(c)4 organization, Organizing for Action can raise unlimited funds without disclosure and channel its energy toward issue advocacy, leaving the DNC to focus on elections. The new OFA is barred from getting involved in elections (though some Republicans are still nervous that the old Obama machine will rise up and defeat them).

The latest iteration of OFA has also raised the ire of campaign-finance watchdogs, unhappy that Obama has embraced the new world of unlimited donations he once decried. But OFA discloses on its website every donor who gives $250 or more and has also barred contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists, and foreign donors. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized OFA's position on disclosing donors.]

But so far, at least, the megadonations have not been rolling in, reducing the appearance that OFA – and, by extension, the Obama White House – is a tool of moneyed interests. In the first quarter of 2013, OFA reported 109,582 donors, with an average donation of $44.

The DNC says it has no qualms about OFA’s existence.

 We are one big family,” says Brad Woodhouse, DNC communications director.

But not all Democrats agree.  

“OFA is a very Obama-centric group of people, with a very Obama-centric mission,” says the Democratic consultant. “So the notion of them doing anything that is going to be helpful to the party is – well, there’s a lot of people who question that…. It’s trickle-down politics.”

On the first big issue, guns, OFA and state Democratic officials clashed. OFA called out red-state Democratic senators for voting against expanded background checks, including two who are up for reelection next year, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. OFA volunteers made calls to voters in those states making sure they knew how their senators voted. Republicans joked that the OFA attacks were probably a gift to the vulnerable Democrats.

OFA officials say they’re not concerned about next year’s election – they’re concerned about the issue. And in any case, they say their post-gun-vote events were more carrot than the stick.

“Sometimes the focus is very much on shaming the folks who voted the wrong way, which is very important,” says Mr. Carson. “But I think showing people that we have their backs, that their constituents are with them on this, I think that’s particularly important." 

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine got some OFA love for their support of expanded background checks, as did Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, both of whom face competitive reelection races. OFA touted data from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling that showed Senators Hagan and Landrieu helped their political prospects with their gun votes.  

But in Alaska, the Democratic Party chairman was not pleased. In a May 8 letter, Mike Wenstrup called on OFA to “cease its attacks on Democratic senators” and rejected “litmus tests.”

Like the Republicans, who have their own intraparty struggles fueled by big-money outside groups, “OFA has instituted a circular firing squad among Democrats,” Mr. Wenstrup wrote. The Democrats need to maintain their Senate majority in Washington to protect the Affordable Care Act, pass immigration reform, promote gay rights, and preserve the social safety net, he added.

OFA did not respond to Wenstrup’s letter. But other Democrats say their intraparty squabbles pale in comparison to the Republicans’. OFA prefera to highlight its core activities – for example, the 500 events they say OFA volunteers will have held between mid-April and the end of May supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Or state groups’ involvement in local issues, such as marriage equality in Illinois. Or OFA’s YouTube video on “climate deniers” that got a quarter-million views.

One big OFA agenda item that doesn’t require passing legislation is implementation of Obamacare – specifically, the start of open enrollment for the uninsured on Oct. 1. OFA plans to hold events promoting awareness of the law and how to enroll. A recent Pew poll found 42 percent of Americans don’t know the health-care law is still the law of the land.

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