By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE and MICHAEL LUO
The warning came from David Plouffe, President Obama’s top political adviser: The Koch brothers and Republican “super PACs” have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Mr. Obama, he told a dozen wealthy Democrats gathered in a Silicon Valley office suite. Do not believe what you read about all the money the president will raise himself, Mr. Plouffe urged them. He needs your help.
With the general election campaign just a few months away, Mr. Obama’s allies are under growing pressure to raise money rapidly for Democratic-leaning independent groups, warning his supporters that the huge cash advantage mustered by Republican groups could prove decisive this fall, overwhelming Mr. Obama despite his own formidable fund-raising apparatus.
Early indications are that the Democratic super PACs are facing an uphill climb. While Mr. Obama’s decision last month to endorse super PAC fund-raising — a reversal of his longstanding opposition to campaign spending by independent groups — has made potential donors more receptive to Priorities USA Action and similar groups, few so far have written the kind of six- and seven-figure checks that Republican super PACs are collecting.
Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting the president’s re-election, will report $2 million in February donations, group officials said, including $1 million from the television host Bill Maher. Those amounts are substantial for Priorities USA and a related group, which together raised about $6.1 million through the end of 2011.
But it leaves them far behind American Crossroads, the leading Republican super PAC, which took in $51 million in 2011 and expects to eventually raise $240 million. Charles and David Koch, the billionaire conservative oilmen, expect to raise an additional $200 million for other groups opposing Mr. Obama. The disparity leaves the president largely reliant on the tens of millions he is raising for his own campaign to counter an expected onslaught of negative advertising.
“February was obviously a much better month than we’ve had in a while,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for Priorities USA. “But Democrats who want the president to win re-election are going to have to ramp up the numbers in order to stay competitive with the avalanche of Republican money coming at him.”
Democratic super PAC officials have beseeched donors with slide shows illustrating how a group backing Mitt Romney has spent millions of dollars pounding Mr. Romney’s rivals in the Republican primary — an object lesson in the power of super PACs, they say. They have also presented expected fund-raising figures for the Republican National Committee and various conservative groups, which they say will negate Mr. Obama’s advantage in traditional fund-raising.
Although federal election law prohibits super PACs from coordinating their spending with campaigns they are supporting, the Obama camp is exploiting loopholes that allow the president’s aides to help court donors. In February, Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, addressed prospective Priorities USA donors at the Chicago offices of John W. Rogers Jr., an investment manager and an Obama fund-raiser, while Mr. Plouffe’s event, this month, was hosted by Steve Westly, a California venture capitalist and a major Obama donor.
Still, significant obstacles remain, according to interviews with leading Democratic donors and consultants.
Some potential donors are unhappy with the president’s stance on climate change or other issues. Mr. Obama’s backers on Wall Street are leery of their money being used for attacks on Mr. Romney’s background in private equity, already the topic of millions of dollars’ worth of slash-and-burn advertising this year from a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich. Still others are not persuaded that Mr. Obama faces any real threat, with the economy improving and the Republican field in the midst of a long, bruising primary.
“I’m undecided,” said Mark Buell, a philanthropist and a major Democratic donor. “It’s really about whether we can afford to take the high road on this. And that is going to be decided by some of the poll data going forward.”
Democratic super PACs have also had mixed results wooing the small circle of wealthy liberals who have helped finance Democratic-leaning outside groups in the past, some of whom are not persuaded that a super PAC controlled by Mr. Obama’s former aides is the best use of their millions.
Among them are Peter B. Lewis, the billionaire chairman of Progressive Insurance, and the investor George Soros, who together donated more than $40 million to Democratic-leaning independent groups in the 2004 election cycle, the last time Democrats were able to muster these kinds of large donations.
Mr. Soros recently declined to provide seed money for a joint super PAC fund-raising effort, according to people involved in the discussions. He is unlikely to contribute to Priorities USA, a person with knowledge of his thinking said last week, though he has not ruled it out. Mr. Lewis is focusing his giving elsewhere this year, an adviser said.
In February, Priorities USA hired Diana Rogalle, who was chief fund-raiser for America Coming Together, which spent $200 million on behalf of Democrats in 2004. But with support from longstanding Democratic megadonors in question, the group is focusing on other constituencies: African-American business executives and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, gay donors, and longtime Obama supporters from Chicago.
Like Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Mr. Romney, Priorities USA is turning to people who are already among their candidate’s top “bundlers,” those who raise money for a campaign from friends, family and business associates. The group has secured checks or commitments from Sandra Thompson, a California lawyer who has raised more than $200,000 for Mr. Obama’s campaign, and Michael Kempner, a public relations executive who has raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Obama.
Another new donor to Priorities USA is Lamell McMorris, a native of Chicago who runs a law firm and government affairs strategy office in Washington.
“I’m really just trying to do the best I can to answer the president’s call — to make sure that one side is not vastly outspent in this election,” Mr. McMorris said in an interview. “I was not quite aware of the disparity.”
Mr. Maher said he had decided to contribute to Priorities USA after attending the Grammys in mid-February and being told by several Hollywood friends that the election was “in the bag” for Mr. Obama.
“One reason I was doing this was to try to throw a snowball and create an avalanche among rich people on the left,” said Mr. Maher, who did not inform Priorities USA of his plans before announcing the donation.
Priorities USA officials held fund-raising meetings last year in conjunction with gatherings of the campaign’s national finance committee in Chicago and Washington, but without the help of White House or Obama campaign officials. The group is hoping that a significant number of the finance committee’s roughly 400 members — each of whom has committed to raising $350,000 for Mr. Obama’s re-election — will eventually become Priorities USA donors.
Officials at Priorities USA and other Democratic super PACs were also invited to address donors at a recent retreat of the Democracy Alliance, a partnership set up in the mid-2000s to funnel money to liberal groups. That decision angered some of the people involved in the alliance, which has tended to emphasize building up a “progressive infrastructure” of research groups and issue advocacy organizations rather than winning elections.
And many big liberal donors are simply uneasy about the unlimited money now sloshing around in the campaign, according to interviews with donors and consultants.
“Some of the major donors on the left see it as a bit unseemly,” said Steve Phillips, the chairman of PowerPAC.org, which ran advertisements backing Mr. Obama in the 2008 primaries and organized voter mobilization, raising more than $10 million, much of it from a half-dozen big donors.
Beginning in December and continuing through early this year, Rob Stein, the founder of the Democracy Alliance, helped spearhead talks among independent Democratic groups about how best to coordinate their efforts. But plans to set up an ambitious fund-raising operation across the super PACs and other Democratic organizations were abandoned after some major donors backed out.
Instead, the groups have established joint bank accounts to allow donors the convenience of writing a single check for multiple groups.
Mr. Phillips and his wife, Susan Sandler — the daughter of Herb and Marion Sandler, who are also major liberal benefactors — contributed $2 million to PowerPAC.org during the 2008 election and would seem to be prime candidates to give to Priorities USA this year. But Mr. Phillips said he and his wife were focusing on building political organizations that emphasized smaller donations.
“I don’t think that’s the right model this time around,” he said, referring to super PACS.
Jennifer Frutchy, who advises Mr. Lewis, the Progressive Insurance chairman, on philanthropic issues, said that he mostly concentrated on longer-term investments in liberal policy and advocacy groups and generally had a distaste for having his donations used for political advertising, particularly negative ads.
Mr. Lewis did contribute $200,000 last year to the start-up of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that provides opposition research for other Democratic-aligned independent groups. But Ms. Frutchy said that he was unlikely to give to any other super PACs this year. Mr. Soros, who, like Mr. Lewis, gave more than $20 million to Democratic groups in the 2004 elections, contributed $100,000 last year to Majority PAC, a group supporting Democratic candidates in Senate races.