Gay marriage: Clooney fundraiser a hint of coming Obama money boom

President Obama's support for gay marriage is energizing gay and lesbian activists, whose support could help offset Wall Street's support for Mitt Romney. The Clooney fundraiser was just a taste.

Larry Downing/REUTERS
President Obama arrives at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., aboard Marine One, before attending a fundraiser at actor George Clooney's home in Los Angeles Thursday night.

President Obama’s decision to go public in support of same-sex marriage marked a historic moment for the presidency and the nation’s gay and lesbian community – and also set off a torrent of fundraising appeals that could change the fundraising math for this fall's presidential race.

“Obviously yesterday we made some news,” President Obama told $40,000-a-plate guests at a fundraiser at the home of George Clooney in Studio City, Calif., on Thursday. The event raised nearly $15 million, expected to be a record.

Mr. Obama's statement supporting marriage equality for all couples fulfills a longstanding demand of a critical group of donors – the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community. On Monday, the president is scheduled to appear at a fundraiser in New York sponsored by gay and Latino supporters. On June 6, he heads back to Los Angeles for a LGBT gala, which organizers say quickly exceeded its 700-person limit after the president’s announcement.

Gay activists are prominent players in the Obama 2012 campaign, including finance director Rufus Gifford, Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias, and White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard. In addition, the president has a designated outreach team to the LGBT community.

Some 1 in 6 of the president’s top campaign “bundlers” – that is, donors who solicit contributions from others and deliver them to candidates – publicly identify themselves as gay, according to a report this week by the Washington Post. The Center for Responsive politics last fall identified “at least 12 prominent gay and lesbian rights advocates, who together had bundled at least $2.7 million for the Obama campaign.”

Even before this week’s statement on gay marriage, the Obama administration claimed “historic strides” on behalf of the LGBT community. These include expanding federal civil rights legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity, ending the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, and directing hospitals receiving Medicare to allow visitation and medical-decision rights to LGBT patients and their partners.

Still, until this week, prominent gay activists had been openly at odds with the president over gay marriage as well as over his failure to issue a promised executive order to ban discrimination by federal contractors over sexual orientation or gender identity.

Moreover, this disappointment over failed promises was taking a toll on fundraising. Overall campaign contributions from gay and lesbian rights interest groups, directed mainly to Democrats, fell to a 16-year low in 2010 – and has dropped even further in the 2012 campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Overall contributions from PACs or individuals affiliated with gay- and lesbian-rights interest groups totaled just $590,000 so far this cycle,” according to a CRP blog post on May 9. “Even if that figure doubles in the next nine months, it would fall short of the $1.3 million contributed in the 2010 cycle, and well below the $1.8 million raised in 2008.”

But after the president’s statement on marriage, prominent gay activists predicted that the White House could expect more energized support from the gay and lesbian community and its supporters.

At first glance, the president enjoys an overwhelming fundraising advantage against his presumptive GOP challenger Mitt Romney. According to the most recent reports, Obama has $104.1 million cash on hand versus $10.1 million for Mr. Romney. But in recent months, support from Wall Street donors has swung sharply to Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics – a shift that could prove significant if the race tightens in the fall.

(Unlike Romney, Obama did not face a tough primary, yet has already spent $89.8 million in his reelection bid, compared with $76.5 million in spending for Romney through March 31, the latest date for which figures are available.)

“The industry’s abandonment of Obama could hardly be more dramatic,” said the Center for Responsive Politics in a March 23 posting. “Wall Street’s preferred candidate in the 2008 race with more than $6 million in industry campaign contributions at this point in the cycle, [Obama] has received less than $2.6 million from the industry so far this time around.”

Los Angeles lawyer Dana Perlman, the cochair of Obama’s LGBT finance committee, told Reuters that he is already looking for a bigger venue for next month’s LGBT fundraiser, which had been planned for 700 people. “Everybody wants to do something,” he said.

“The president’s support of full marriage equality is something to be celebrated, and frankly, rewarded,” wrote lesbian activist and’s campaign director Julie Rosen, in a fundraising appeal e-mailed to some 7 million members on Thursday. “The best way to encourage the president to keep showing leadership and taking strong stands it to demonstrate how much his actions mean to you.”

“On a personal note, I can't tell you how deeply meaningful President Obama's statement was to me,” she added. “With my own big gay wedding only 24 days away, it's incredibly uplifting to know that President Obama supports my right to marry the love of my life. That's why for the first time since 2008, I pulled out my credit card and donated to his re-election. I hope you will join me.”

Gay activist and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who organized Obama’s online outreach in the 2008 campaign, calls the president’s shift on gay marriage, “energizing.”

“This is one of those issues that now a majority of Americans see as a basic civil rights issue,” he said in an interview on CBS’s “This Morning” on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the White House as well as House and Senate campaign committees immediately sent out fundraising appeals to help defend the president from a backlash from conservatives on gay marriage. The president sent out a mass e-mail to supporters explaining his decision to "affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry," and ending with a "please donate today."

The Democratic National Committee revised the entry page on its website to feature this message: "Same-sex couples should be able to get married. Stand up with the president." Then, this option: "I'm IN."

Pressed on whether fundraising was a factor in the president’s turnabout on gay marriage, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California – an early advocate for gay and lesbian issues in Congress – said no. “The statement that the president made yesterday was something that was the right thing to do for our country, filled my heart with joy,” she told reporters at a briefing on Thursday. “But I really dismiss the idea that this has anything to do with money,” she added. “I really do.”

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