Democratic lobbyists giving cold shoulder to Obama super-PAC

Democratic lobbyists who have been barred from fundraising for President Obama’s campaign are showing little interest in donating instead to a super-PAC that supports him.

Unlike Obama’s official campaign, the Priorities USA Action super-PAC accepts donations from registered lobbyists. The president gave his blessing to Priorities earlier this month, giving K Street a place to contribute cash to his reelection efforts.

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But hard feelings toward Obama for his anti-lobbyist rhetoric linger on K Street, and lobbyists contacted by The Hill said they don’t expect an outpouring of support for the super-PAC.

“Did a great ‘huzzah’ go up among lobbyists when it was apparent that although we can’t give to the Obama reelect directly, we can [give] to the super-PAC that shares that goal? No,” said Robert Raben, the president and founder of the Raben Group and a former aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Raben has given $500 to Majority PAC, a super-PAC that supports Senate Democrats, but said he doesn’t expect to make a similar show of support with Priorities.

“I doubt it. It’s not a priority for me,” Raben said. “I do want the president to be reelected, but I already give a lot of money to congressional candidates.”

Tony Podesta, the chairman of the Podesta Group and one of the Democratic Party’s biggest fundraisers, said he has no plans to fundraise or contribute to the pro-Obama super-PAC.

“I may well give to them, but the fact the president now wants me to doesn’t incent me further,” he said.

Podesta joked that any contribution he made would be modest compared to the wealthy donors who are bankrolling many of the super-PACs.

“I’m not a Koch brother,” Podesta said, referring to the wealthy family active in Republican politics. “I can’t write them a check that can be meaningful.”

But Podesta said he has no hard feelings toward Obama for positioning himself against the influence industry.

“Some people are bothered by the rhetoric. It’s political rhetoric. I don’t take it as a personal insult,” Podesta said.

A few registered lobbyists have already given to Priorities since its founding last year, according to Federal Election Commission records.

David Castagnetti of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti has contributed $5,000 to the group; Steve Elmendorf of Elmendorf Ryan has given $5,000; John Michael Gonzalez of Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart has given $5,000; Bryant Hall of Tiber Creek Health Strategies has given $500; and Joel Johnson of the Glover Park Group has contributed $5,000.

A Priorities USA Action spokeswoman confirmed to The Hill that the group’s policy of accepting lobbyist donations has not changed since the endorsement from Obama’s campaign on Feb. 6. 

Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manger, announced that senior campaign, White House and Cabinet officials would attend and speak at Priorities USA events, though they would not be “soliciting contributions.” Obama will not attend the Priorities fundraisers, nor will first lady Michelle Obama or Vice President Biden. 

“With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm,” Messina said.

Many on K Street said the announcement was not geared toward lobbyists but rather toward wealthy, liberal donors who can write multimillion-dollar checks, such as George Soros and Peter Lewis.

“Their change of stance isn’t directed at the people in Washington. It’s directed at the big donors around the country who are already supporting Obama. They needed to hear it was OK to support these things,” Elmendorf said.

One Democratic lobbyist predicted the endorsement would lead to more donations to Priorities from corporate executives and trade groups, but not lobbyists.

“I think not. I think very few will give personal money,” the lobbyist said. “I don’t think the super-PAC developments with the administration will be attractive enough for a lot of lobbyists to cross the hurdle and contribute.”

Further, publicly held companies are likely to shy away from giving to the super-PAC because they fear what their shareholders will say, while private firms are more apt to give.

“People are worried about shareholder accountability,” said the lobbyist, noting that public companies would likely need some sort of approval from shareholders before they can make a big political donation.

Raben said the need for political fundraising had become “a blot on democracy” but said Democrats have to participate in the money race in order to compete with Republicans.

“The system is disgusting. Grown people wasting their time explaining why they should get money. It’s a blot on democracy. But the right won’t let us do public financing, or even limit corporate money. And this is what we’re fighting. And if you bring a knife to a gunfight, you generally lose,” Raben said.