WASHINGTON -- Outside Democratic groups launched a broadside attack on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney this past week, producing a video hitting him on the elections he's lost, unearthing footage of him praising the health care reforms he implemented in his home state, and releasing a document that highlights legislation he vetoed while in office.
None of the slams have been debilitating. But they've all put a hitch in the Romney campaign's step, reflecting the way in which a group of Obama-allied organizations has managed to tilt the 2012 landscape.
The president's political team is undoubtedly grateful for the assist. But since Obama and his aides have, in the past, warned against the nefarious influence of shadowy outside groups, the emergence of a Democratic network of such groups has proved a bit tricky to discuss. On Wednesday, the president's top communications adviser, David Axelrod, downplayed the impact that these organizations would have in 2012.
"From where I sit, it looks like a rather minor network," Axelrod told a group of reporters at a forum hosted by Bloomberg View. "I don't see anything that parallels what is happening on the Republican side, and for good reason. We don't have a lot of billionaire oilmen who are eager to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat us and dismantle the EPA. We don't have the Karl Rove list of special interests and ideologues with huge amounts of money who want to make sure they still get a preferential tax code and regulatory environment ... I think that the vast majority of spending is going to be on that side."
Axelrod is correct in noting that Democratic outside groups won't match their Republican counterparts. According to their most recent campaign filings, none of the major new organizations has raised more than $3.2 million (though some of the entities don't have to report at all). American Bridge, the group started by Media Matters founder David Brock, has raised $1.56 million, House Majority PAC has raised $2.1 million, Majority PAC has raised $1.08 million and Priorities USA Action has raised $3.16 million.
But those figures don't include organized labor; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the nation's largest labor unions, has said it will spend $100 million this cycle. Moreover, it is in the Obama campaign's interest to maintain the impression that a shadowy conservative network of groups is ready to overwhelm Democrats in 2012, even when the president is set to raise an estimated $1 billion for his campaign.
The other interesting variable here is message control. In 2008, Axelrod was instrumental in shutting down the development of outside government groups by telling Democratic donors to funnel money strictly through the Obama campaign. The idea was to have one, unified, message -- something that would be put at risk if other groups, with whom the Obama campaign couldn't legally coordinate, were airing their own ads.
Four years later, members of the president's team now run those outside groups. And those in the top echelons of the reelection campaign seem willing to sacrifice a bit of that synchronicity if it means a more level playing field.
"In some ways," said Axelrod, "I'm happy that there are other means of communication that are becoming more prominent because you don't want to cede the ground to that process."