Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee (RNC) raised $76.8 million in May, outpacing President Obama and his Democratic allies in the first head-to-head month of the campaign.
The more than $16 million gap between the presidential hopefuls — Obama and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) raised a combined $60 million — had Republicans crowing Thursday that the haul was a sign of things to come and they had the Obama campaign on the defensive.
“We got beat,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an email to supporters that included a plea for donations.
Obama’s team argued that Romney’s fundraising spike was an anomaly enabled by a fluke in campaign finance laws, but some saw it as the latest sign of bad news for the president.
And for Democrats already anxious about the looming influence of super-PACs — and already leaning on high-profile Hollywood donors like George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker — Thursday’s numbers did little to calm nerves.
“It’s going to be a close campaign. Some Democrats have always thought this was going to be a layup, and it’s not,” said Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf. “The only thing anyone has any control of is the money. A lot of Democratic donors need to wake up and realize the Republicans are willing to spend whatever it takes. We need to get on the field and compete with the other side.”
The Obama campaign said Thursday that Romney’s fundraising spike was likely because May was the first month that donors could give to the joint fund set up between the nominee’s campaign and the RNC. That meant that donors who had already maxed out during Romney’s primary campaign could now contribute to his general-election effort. In May, Mitt and Ann Romney each donated $75,000 — the individual maximum — to the joint effort.
“We anticipated that they would beat us this month,” said Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt during a call with reporters Thursday, pointing out that Sen. John KerryJohn KerryPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space MORE (D-Mass.) experienced a similar one-time bump after clinching the Democratic nomination during his 2004 campaign against then-President George W. Bush.
But LaBolt admitted that “certainly, there will be a lot of special interests spending against the president this fall.” And DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told MSNBC the coming wave of super-PAC cash would be “truly disturbing.”
Democrats believed that the conservative prowess in super-PAC fundraising would be counterbalanced through a wider donor base for the Obama campaign. But if Romney can continue to outpace Democrats in official campaign contributions, the financial disparity could become dramatic.
“That should serve as a clarion call to our supporters and our donors to give now,” LaBolt added.
Republicans dismissed LaBolt’s arguments about a one-time spike as spin, noting Obama didn’t see a similar jump in fundraising dollars when he formed a joint fundraising committee with the DNC. It took the Obama campaign nearly three months from the start of its joint fundraising to match the total raised by Romney in May, although the Obama fund debuted at a time when national attention was focused on the bruising Republican primary.
“People are supporting Gov. Romney and the Republicans because voters are sick of the president’s failure to fix our economy,” said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
And Democrats are privately expressing concern that the president’s fundraising numbers, coupled with the discouraging jobs report, a tough loss in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall and surrogates drifting increasingly off message would combine to turn the prevailing narrative against Obama.
A former senior administration official said Thursday that it’s obvious the campaign “doesn’t have the same excitement and we’re suffering from fatigue.”
The official said the president should instead attack Romney with more intensity, suggesting that a war of attrition in which the candidates became mired in debates on the economy would do little to motivate independent, young or minority voters.
“Messina needs to bring out the knives and gut him at this point and go as negative as they can to highlight the stark differences,” the official said.
But the Obama campaign has struggled to land punches thus far, with attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital stumbling out of the gate.
“They have not found a message that sticks, whether it’s Bain being undermined by Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Is Wall Street serving its own interests by supporting China's? MORE or the Massachusetts record, which isn’t working because of the jobs report — they can’t find a message that works,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “The one thing the Romney guys are good at — they might not be great at offensive messaging, but they are great on playing defense.”
Still, Democrats remain optimistic that a month of troubling news for the Obama campaign has come early enough not to erase the president’s advantages heading into November.
“It’s a long campaign, and you’re going to have good weeks and bad weeks,” said Elmendorf. “The Obama campaign strength is that they figure out a strategy and they don’t get thrown off by the weekly, daily and hourly distractions.”
This story was originally published at 11 a.m. and has been updated.