Rebranded Obama campaign group causes frustration for DNC

Several members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) expressed fear Tuesday that the new outside group Organizing for Action — a retooled version of President Obama’s campaign machine — could hurt the national party’s fundraising and drain its resources. 

“I don’t know how splitting things apart is conducive to progress. When you start looking at competitive interests that are trying to move in the same direction, why wouldn’t you all be on the same page?” Krystal Thrailkill, a DNC committee member from Arkansas, told The Hill at the committee’s annual winter meeting.

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DNC members said they were caught off guard when the leaders of the president’s reelection team announced Obama for America was morphing into Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonprofit group that can take unlimited “soft money” donations. 

The group will be spearheaded by former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and advocate for Obama’s policies by mobilizing the millions-strong list of grassroots supporters built by the campaign. 

While the new group will seek to go toe to toe with GOP outside groups like Crossroads GPS, some Democrats aren’t pleased that Obama didn’t fold his powerful grassroots operation back into the DNC.

Thrailkill said she understood that OFA’s ability to raise unlimited contributions and keep Obama voters engaged could be a help to Democrats. But she suggested the new entity could confuse the party’s messaging and would compete with the DNC for money and manpower.

“You can get a lot of money and that’s helpful. Still, when you start asking for money, who are you asking from? That’s really the question,” she said. “I’m not sure how adding another layer is helpful.”

Virginia Democratic Party vice-chairwoman Gaylene Kanoyton expressed some similar concerns. 

Many Democrats were frustrated that the Obama campaign didn't do more to help out in Virginia's governor's race in 2009 and in the 2010 midterms. Kanoyton said she is concerned that, this time around, OFA could siphon off volunteers and organizing focus from the DNC and state parties — whose responsibility it is to elect Democrats — if the groups don't work together to define their roles soon.

“We’re not quite clear on what exactly OFA is going to be doing. We saw an email [announcement] just like everyone else saw an email the other day,” Kanoyton said. “I had no advance warning.” 

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) sought to assuage members’ concerns about OFA.

“One of the powerful lessons we learned from our victory this cycle is that we can’t start from scratch every four years. I’m thrilled that the president has announced that OFA will not end with the 2012 elections,” Wasserman Schultz said at the DNC meeting. 

OFA will complement the work done by the DNC by keeping volunteers engaged in issue advocacy, helping to pass the president’s legislative agenda and training grassroots activists, she said. 

“For all of the political veterans in this room, you know and understand that when you care about issues you’re going to get involved in elections and when you win elections you need a vehicle to capitalize on those wins to advocate for the issues that matter most,” Wasserman Schultz said. 

There has been some tension between the DNC and OFA in the past — even when OFA was technically operating as a part of the broader Democratic Party apparatus — with fights over sharing resources and prioritizing issues.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), an outgoing DNC vice chairman, said he’d found out about the change to the Obama organization from young staffers of his who were on OFA’s mailing list.

“It’s a good idea to switch it, but it’s also a good idea to make sure that people know,” Honda said. “Keep them informed, at least, keep them engaged.”

Outgoing DNC Vice Chairwoman Linda Chavez Thompson said the new organization could be a boon for the party, and that both sides needed to get together to make sure everyone is on the same page going forward.

“There’s been some feelings hurt, but I think we can get past that,” she said.

“We don’t need to be spending a lot of time on the negativity. I think if we spend it really looking at this as a steppingstone to continue the administration’s work at the grassroots level, I think we’ll be OK.”

Chavez Thompson said Democrats “need to have more conversations about exactly how [OFA] is going to work, how it fits with the DNC and how we can fit with them.”

She promised to do whatever she could to help OFA, but said that “it’s a two-way street” and that she’d “also like to have some input.”

Kanoyton said the group’s new focus on issue advocacy made her nervous the DNC would struggle to find the grassroots support for elections.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (D), a DNC vice chairman who has been involved in OFA, said he hoped to help smooth over any conflicts between the two groups.

“We have to have an effective, broad party infrastructure, but the last campaign told us we also need to beat the massive special-interest money that will get thrown at us with a massive ground game,” Rybak said.

“We can have both. We need both.”

- Updated at 4:50 p.m. Jan. 23

 

 

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