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Organizing For Action Praised By Super PACs, Derided By Reformers

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President Barack Obama, whose reelection campaign is reorganizing as a nonprofit, waves after delivering his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama, whose reelection campaign is reorganizing as a nonprofit, waves after delivering his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON -- The relaunch of President Barack Obama's reelection campaign as an issues-based nonprofit called Organizing for Action (OFA) has been met with strikingly different reactions from Democratic super PACs that were active in the 2012 election and from progressive campaign reformers.

Outside Democratic groups focused on winning elections clearly hope that OFA will be a boon to their efforts to win back the House of Representatives in 2014 and defend and expand the Democratic majority in the Senate. But campaign reformers see the launch of a nonprofit that will accept corporate donations as the final retreat from the president's long-ago wish to change the way Washington works.

With Organizing for Action, Obama has chosen to embrace the political power of his office by expanding the permanent campaign in an unprecedented way while creating new avenues for the soft corporate money that he spent years warning against.

Chaired by former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, OFA will work to enact the president's second-term agenda. Super PACs and other outside Democratic groups, freed from the constraints of election laws that banned certain coordination between them and the Obama campaign, will be able to share information and resources with OFA as they try to elect more Democrats to Congress.

The Democratic groups hope that OFA can keep Obama voters active and engaged enough to turn out in the midterm elections, which traditionally see a smaller, older and less diverse electorate. In the 2010 midterms, 45 million fewer voters showed up to cast their ballots than in 2008. Republicans won 63 seats in the House, taking control of the lower chamber, and six seats in the Senate, significantly cutting into the Democrats' majority.

"We're interested to see their plans in House races," said Andy Stone, spokesman for House Majority PAC, which seeks to retake that chamber for the Democrats. "In particular, to the extent which they are communicating to Obama drop-off voters to keep them engaged and involved in the 2014 midterms. That's great. That's going to be really helpful."

Susan McCue, the former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and director of Senate Majority PAC, has plans to meet with top OFA leaders now that they can coordinate with Democratic outside groups. Senate Majority PAC is aimed at electing Democrats to the upper chamber.

"I spoke to Jim Messina the other day, and I'm looking forward to getting together with him and some other friends who are starting it and seeing how we can collaborate," McCue said.

Organizing for Action officials have said they will be devoted to pushing the passage of the president's agenda in Congress. This suggests that OFA, organized as a 501(c)(4) group, will hew closer to issue advocacy than the type of direct electoral appeals that similar social welfare nonprofits have been allowed to make in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

Still, OFA could provide significant support to other outside groups empowered by the decision, including super PACs and nonprofit environmental, labor and women's groups. Organizing for Action wields the Obama supporter list, which exceeds 10 million individuals, and the campaign's database of voters, which includes information on interests and motivations. Both lists will be useful for issue advocacy efforts and, if they are given access, for outside Democratic groups seeking to target voters in House and Senate races.

Such coordination between unlimited-money groups and an organization so close to the president is just one of many things that worries campaign finance reformers like Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. Most concerning to them is that Organizing for Action itself will accept unlimited contributions, including from corporations.

"It opens the door to opportunities for government corruption, by allowing corporations and individuals to provide unlimited amounts of money to directly benefit the President's interests and potentially to receive government benefits and favors in return," Wertheimer said in a statement released Tuesday.

Backing up Wertheimer's fears are previous reports that the president may raise money for OFA and that Obama has already sent one email to supporters with the OFA letterhead.

"History is quite clear that unlimited funds provided to benefit an officeholder or candidate create the opportunity for corruption or the appearance of corruption," Wertheimer said. "And that is the opportunity being created with the establishment of Organizing for Action by the President and his political allies.

The decision to accept corporate donations is a major change for a president who previously stated his opposition to them. That said, Obama's abhorrence of corporate contributions had already waned in 2012 as he allowed the Democratic National Convention and his second inaugural committee to accept them, both reversals of his 2008 practice.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and president of the campaign finance reform groups Rootstrikers and Change Congress, said in a statement this past Friday, "This is just one more step away from the Barack 'take up the fight to change the way Washington works' Obama we elected. It is time he turn around and get back to his mission."

In a nod to the president's longstanding campaign policy, Organizing for Action will not accept contributions from PACs or lobbyists. However, such donations tend to be limited placeholders for the direct corporate contributions that federal law bans to campaigns and that OFA will accept.

Adam Green, executive director of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, said, "Essentially, they're saying we won't take donations from MoveOn, Democracy for America or Progressive Campaign Change Committee PACs, but we would accept million-dollar checks from Bank of America or Goldman Sachs. What is the broad principle there?"

Organizing for Action has not yet said when, where and how it will disclose its donors, something that, as a social welfare nonprofit, it is not legally required to do. NBC News reported that the organization is considering a monthly or quarterly disclosure schedule.

"I think that if they are going to run an organization like this, with such close ties to the White House, run by [former] White House and campaign staffers, it's important to know who's funding it and who's behind it," said Adam Smith, communications director for the reform group Public Campaign.

Organizing for Action did not respond to repeated requests to comment on its activities, disclosure policy or acceptance of corporate donations.

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