Correction, Sept. 6, 2013, 4:28 p.m.: The historical comparison of receipts for conservative and liberal super PACs has been amended since this story first published after an error was discovered in the data provided to the Center by the Federal Election Commission.
Democrats have become the kings of super PACs.
With Congress fighting over gun legislation and immigration, and 2014 midterm races already simmering, many left-leaning donors are eagerly bankrolling these free-spending groups that the party faithful have often criticized for unleashing unlimited money into political races.
Liberal-aligned super PACs combined to raise more than $40 million during the first half of 2013, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission.
Their conservative counterparts, meanwhile, collectively raised about $20 million.
That’s a stark contrast with 2011 and 2012, when Republicans rapidly deployed the nascent organizations following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that led to their creation.
During the first six months of 2011, for example, conservative super PACs outraised their liberal rivals more than 2-to-1, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of FEC data.
And during the same period last year, when Republicans, unlike Democrats, engaged in a heated presidential primary battle, GOP-aligned super PACs outraised liberal ones nearly 3-to-1.
But with President Barack Obama last year offering his tacit approval of big-dollar political giving, Democrats have quickly closed the fundraising gap by embracing super PACs, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to promote or attack politicians.
“Despite ideological opposition to super PAC spending, I don’t see Democrats wanting to play on an uneven playing field,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in California. “This is the political reality.”
Twenty super PACs raised more than $2 million during the first half of 2013, federal records show, and 13 of them are generally aligned with Democrats. In fact, the top six are all liberal groups.
Leading the way was the Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC, a group launched by former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona and her husband, Mark Kelly, to support stricter gun control laws. Her super PAC brought in more than $6.6 million between January 1 and the end of June.
Billionaire Marc Benioff, the founder and chief executive officer of Salesforce.com, ranked as Giffords’ super PAC’s top donor, giving $500,000. Ahead of the 2012 election, Benioff bundled more than $500,000 for Obama’s re-election efforts, and this spring, he visited the White House three times, records show.
Additionally, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and the Texas-based law firm of Democratic mega-donors Steve and Amber Mostyn, each donated $250,000 to Americans for Responsible Solutions. Steve Mostyn serves as the group’s treasurer.
Unions, Texas trial lawyers spread funds to Democrats
The next six super PACs with the largest fundraising hauls so far in 2013 include a super PAC affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association, three groups focused on expanding the ranks of Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate and a union-funded operation.
DGA Action, which supports Democratic gubernatorial candidates, raised $4.2 million through the end of June. The bulk of that funding — $3.6 million — came from the DGA itself. Another $150,000 came from the National Education Association.
Ranking third in receipts so far this year is the union-funded Workers’ Voice super PAC, which raised $3.8 million from January through June. That includes $1.8 million from the AFL-CIO; $1 million from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); and $500,000 from UNITE HERE, which primarily represents workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, laundry and airport industries.
This year, those three unions also touted a pathway for citizenship for undocumented immigrants — a theme that the super PAC also advanced.
“American workers deserve a commonsense immigration process that includes a road map to citizenship,” Michael Podhorzer, political director at the AFL-CIO, wrote in an e-mail on behalf of the Workers’ Voice super PAC earlier this year.
“Eleven million citizens in waiting will remember who stood up for them, and who gave in to fear,” he continued. “And soon, they’ll take that memory with them to ballot boxes across the country.”
Meanwhile, Democrat-backing House Majority PAC collected roughly $3.4 million; sister organization Senate Majority PAC collected $3 million; and American Bridge 21st Century, which specializes in opposition research to aid Democrats, collected $2.9 million.