For the related nonprofit, see Priorities USA Action (nonprofit)
Priorities USA Action is a major Super PAC associated with supporting Democratic Party candidates and opposing Republican candidates. The organization was created in April 2011 by former White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney and backed by a Democratic power brokers including Paul Begala, Harold Ickes, Jim Messina, and Ellen Malcolm. It arose from the ashes of the Democrats’ 2010 midterm outside spending deficit.
Initially, the group received a tepid reaction from President Barack Obama and Democratic donors. However, in 2012, the President reversed that position and began to quietly support the group. During the 2012 cycle, the group raised and spent $66 million. However, four years later, entrenched behind Hillary Clinton and with President Obama in support, Priorities USA Action became the most well funded Super PAC in history. It raised $175 million and spendt over $117 million on independent expenditures related to the 2016 elections. A substantial portion of Priorities USA Action’s contributions came from donors who gave over seven figures, including Donald Sussman, Cheryl and Haim Saban, M.K. and Jay Pritzker, Fred Eychaner, and Marilyn and James Simons.
In 2008, a Democratic PAC whose advisers included Paul Begala raised “tens of millions of dollars” to pay for attack ads against Republican Presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). But the Obama campaign had spokesman Bill Burton publicly denounce the effort and effectively shut down the PAC. Two years later, President Obama’s repeated denunciations of Super PACs were said to be “unilaterally disarming Democrats.” As a result, during the 2010 midterms, Republican-leaning groups outspent Democratic-leaning groups, helping Republicans take control of the House of Representatives.
Three months after the 2010 midterms, Bill Burton left his post as White House deputy press secretary and teamed up with “his pal Sean Sweeney” — who previously served as the top aide to the Obama White House’s first White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. Together, Burton and Sweeney started a pro-Obama super PAC. The New York Times reported, “Their chief qualification for the job, beyond the fact that no one else wanted it, was their shared appreciation for the devastating work that well-financed outside groups can do.”
Burton and Sweeney named their organization Priorities USA Action as “a backhanded homage to Karl Rove,” and they “explicitly modeled the two-headed corpus of their brainchild after American Crossroads.” Like Rove’s Crossroads, “one side would consist of a tax-exempt political action committee covered by section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, to which named individuals and groups could donate in unlimited amounts.”
The sister organization to the Section 527 Priorities USA Action, was Priorities USA, a 501(c)(4), that “could, like its counterpart Crossroads GPS, receive unlimited funds by undisclosed donors, provided that the ‘social welfare’ organization did not pursue political activities as its ‘primary purpose.’”
Though Priorities USA Action and Priorities USA were distinct legal organizations with different limitations, critics noted that Priorities USA existed to assist Priorities USA Action toward its goal. “‘Priorities USA, like Crossroads GPS, has one purpose, and that’s to elect and defeat candidates,’ [said] Fred Wertheimer of the campaign watchdog group Democracy 21. “‘They’re blowing smoke when they claim they’re a ‘social welfare’ organization in the business of discussing issues.’”
Coordination between super PACs, such as Priorities USA Action, and presidential campaigns is forbidden. Therefore Bill Burton explained that the two sides operated under a “mutually understood” “division of labor” where “Priorities would focus on ‘defining’” and “destroying” the opponent (then Mitt Romney), while the campaign was “the keeper of the president’s story.”
However, in 2015, Burton noted that since super PACs were facing significant future challenges, “one of two things is going to happen… We will either see widespread flaunting of coordination rules or we will see some pretty spectacular failures to the tune of millions of dollars.”
Observers noted that despite their other flaws, Burton and Sweeney were amply qualified to carry out the “chief function of a super PAC,” which is “to kneecap an opponent” While trashing the opponent was seen as beneath the President, “it was hardly beneath Obama’s friends residing in the shadows of super PAC world. Quite the opposite: this was exactly what Priorities was set up to do.”
2012 Election Cycle
Priorities USA Action initially “struggled against a confluence of inhospitable factors,” namely that: “outside money tends to flow toward the party out of power;” “the widely held assumption that the Obama campaign was raising enough money on its own;” and that “Priorities operated not only without Obama’s endorsement but also in the face of his implicit disapproval.”
Further complicating Priorities USA Action’s emergence on the political scene was that the group’s stated fundraising goal for the 2012 Presidential election was $100 million, a relatively meager sum compared with the aggregate $800 million in funding to be raised by three Republican organizations. Thus donors were unsure of what impact the group would have.
Due to these factors, “during the first 10 months of its existence, Priorities USA Action managed to raise only $7 million. (Of this, $2 million was seed money from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the C.E.O. of DreamWorks Animation; another $1 million came from the comedian Bill Maher.)”
Ultimately, after Obama dropped his initial opposition to Priorities (or any super PAC) “and gave his quiet blessing to the group, Priorities’ contributions picked up. By Election Day it had raised more than $66 million from unions and wealthy liberal donors, whose names had to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.” The Group spent “$65 million in the 2012 presidential race, battering Republican Mitt Romney with attack ads that depicted him as a profit-chasing, cold-hearted plutocrat with a history of screwing over the middle class.”
2016 Election Cycle- Pro-Hillary Super PAC
“By early 2014, Priorities USA Action had transitioned into a pro-[Hillary] Clinton super PAC in waiting.” “In January 2014, Priorities USA Action… declared it would back Clinton — a move the New York Times called ‘perhaps the earliest start to big-dollar fund-raising in support of a non-incumbent presidential candidate’ ever.”
In the meantime, Democratic opposition to Super PACs had faded. There was “a near-universal view among top donors and strategists that the party needed its own big-money groups to compete” and President Obama for the first time agreed to headline fundraisers for super PACs.
During the 2016 election cycle, Priorities USA Action was among a small group of organizations that comprised “an infrastructure that would allow Clinton to hit the ground running if and when she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination.”
While other organizations were responsible for various tasks, Priorities USA Action was seen as the apparatus responsible for “[cultivating] relationships with major donors.”
When Clinton declared her candidacy in the spring of 2015, “the big dollars were ready: Priorities USA Action almost immediately collected over $15 million, virtually all of it in gifts of $500,000 or more.”
In October 2016, it was reported that during the 2016 election cycle, as “Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC”, Priorities USA Action “raised more money than any Super PAC ever.” The money was used to aid “Clinton’s campaign in burying Republican nominee Donald Trump in a torrent of negative advertising.”
In total during the 2016 election cycle, the group raised $175.96 million, and spent $161.24 million of which $117.04 million funded independent expenditures. “Almost all of its independent expenditures,” were “ads opposing Trump rather than supporting Clinton.”
Priorities also had a joint fundraising committee with EMILY’s List Women Vote!, which “raised exactly $1 million. [It] transferred most of that money to Women Vote!”
2016 Election Cycle Controversies
In Feb. 2014, while preparing for the presidential race in 2016, Priorities USA Action faced intra-party uproar due to reports that the group would “sit out the midterm elections.” “Stung by headlines,” the group “scrambled to emphasize its support for this year’s [2014’s] campaigns.” Seeking to rectify the damage, the group’s leaders said they would “not aggressively raise [money] for 2016 until after the midterms” and noted they were “working closely with the House Majority and Senate Majority PACs.”
Throughout the 2016 race, left-wing Democratic Presidential challenger Bernie Sanders “hammered” Clinton for taking tens of millions from Wall Street. CNN reported that “he pointed to Clinton’s Priorities USA Action, which reported raising … $15 million attached to Wall Street interests.” Sanders noted, “Our campaign is funded by the people. To a significant degree, her campaign is funded by Wall Street and big money interests.”
In 2015, David Brock, leader of “an empire of hard-hitting liberal attack groups” abruptly resigned from the board of Priorities USA Action. In his departure from the group, Brock “accused Priorities officials of planting ‘an orchestrated political hit job’ against his own pro-Clinton groups, American Bridge and Media Matters.”
“As a super PAC, Priorities USA Action must disclose its donors.” However, the group is not 100% transparent, as some of of its donors don’t disclose their donors. For instance, the group “accepted a $1 million contribution from Fair Share Action, a super PAC funded by two ‘social welfare’ nonprofits that don’t comprehensively reveal who funds them.” It likewise took in six-figure contributions from corporations such as Suffolk Construction Company Inc. ($200,000) and TA Group Services Inc. ($100,000).”
That said, the large majority of Priorities USA Action donors are disclosed. And most of those donors give hefty sums of money. During the 2016 election cycle, “almost all of the money raised by Priorities USA Action [came] from seven-figure donors. Of the group’s total $176 million haul, $157 million ― 89 percent ― [came] from just 42 donors [individuals and organizations] giving $1 million or more.”
41 separate individual donors (or LLCs) gave at least one $500,000 contribution to Priorities USA Action during the 2016 election cycle. In total these individual contributions comprised $139.9 million.
|Pritzker, Jay Robert||$4,900,000|
|Pritzker, Mary Kathryn||$4,400,000|
|Sandler, Herbert M||$4,000,000|
|Shaw, David E||$4,000,000|
|Laufer, Marsha Z||$3,000,000|
|Emerson Collective, LLC||$2,500,000|
|Mandel, Steve F||$2,500,000|
|Schwartz, Bernard L||$2,500,000|
|Stryker, Jon L||$2,000,000|
|Munger, Philip R||$1,850,000|
|Cloobeck, Stephen J||$1,000,000|
|Fair Share Action||$1,000,000|
|Khawaja, Ahmad M||$1,000,000|
|Lee, Barbara A||$1,000,000|
|Mostyn, John S||$1,000,000|
|Mostyn, John Steven||$1,000,000|
|Silberstein, Stephen M||$800,000|
|Doerr, Ann Howland||$500,000|
|Doerr, John Iii||$500,000|
|Williams, Sara M.||$500,000|
Priorities USA Action also received $31 million in contributions from 27 affiliated Democratic groups and labor unions.
|Working for Working Americans||$5,000,000|
|LIUNA Building America||$3,725,000|
|Operating Engineers Union||$3,000,000|
|Fair Share Action||$2,000,000|
|American Federation of Teachers||$1,500,000|
|National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.||$1,250,000|
|NEA Advocacy Fund||$1,001,800|
|American Federation of Teachers Solidarity||$1,000,000|
|Service Employees International Union||$1,000,000|
|UA Political Education Committee||$1,000,000|
|UAW Education Fund||$1,000,000|
|American Fed. of Govt Employees||$500,000|
|United We Can||$500,000|
|United Assn. of Journeymen and Apprentices||$500,000|
|National Assn of Letter Carriers||$250,000|
|United Food & Commercial Workers Union||$250,000|
|Transport Workers Union||$150,000|
|Planned Parenthood Votes||$133,034|
|League of Conservation Voters||$100,000|
|Painters & Allied Trades Union||$100,000|
|International Alliance Theatrical Stage Employees||$75,000|
|Environment America Action Fund||$50,000|
|International Assn. of Fire Fighters||$50,000|
Super PAC Hypocrisy
President Obama had “staked much of his political career on opposition to the outsized role of ‘secret billionaires’ and other monied interests.” However, in February 2012, in a switch, President Obama endorsed the Priorities USA “super PAC,” which would work to help his reelection.
Observers noted that Obama in supporting the Priorities USA would have “to reconcile his campaign’s move… with his previous opposition to the super PACs especially his memorable 2010 State of the Union speech in which he denounced Citizens United.”
However, Jim Messina, then Obama’s campaign manager was quick to respond that Obama and his allies switched their position on Super PACs because they were afraid that Republicans “spending hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads,” would destroy the the work the Democratic party was doing.
Critics from both sides of the aisle seized on the President’s change of heart. Democratic critics said Priorities USA’s founders were “trying to become corporate-lite” and were thus “playing with the Devil.” Meanwhile Republican critics were harsher labeling the President a power-seeking hypocrite for “encouraging his own operatives to start groups exactly like the ones he demagogued.”
Priorities USA Action’s leaders ignored these claims of hypocrisy by rationalizing their decision as one driven by morals over dollars.
“A sentiment commonly held by Democrats — so much so that it’s part of the standard Priorities pitch to donors — is that their only motivation to contribute is a moral one, while Republicans like the Koch brothers donate because they stand to make gobs of money if their pro-business candidate is elected.”
In addition to Burton and Sweeney, a number of high-profile Democratic consultants and operatives helped start Priorities USA Action. Paul Begala was the “first to sign on as a paid consultant.” Harold Ickes, was the first president of Priorities USA Action and Ellen Malcolm of Emily’s List and the America Coming Together PAC also provided early consultation.
In 2014, Bill Burton as a “senior Democratic strategist” for Priorities USA Action and Priorities USA was paid a total of $334,995 for his work with the two organizations. Additionally, Paul Begala was paid at least $584,000 from the two Priorities USA groups “in return for his consulting services between April 2011 and November 2012.”
During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Buffy Wicks, served as the executive director while Jim Messina and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm served as co-chairs of the Super PAC.
In January 2017, Patrick McHugh was promoted to serve as Executive Director.
Priorities USA Action’s website and FEC filings do not list staff members or their board of directors, as is common with many 527 organizations. As of the close of its 2016 election cycle, the following individuals served as directors of Priorities USA Action:
- Jim Messina, co-chair
- Jennifer Granholm, co-chair
- David Brock
- Charles Baker III
- Allida Black
- Maria Echaveste
- Justin Gray
- William P. Hite
- Harold M. Ickes
- Stephanie Schriock
- Marva Smalls
- Joe Solmonese
- Greg Speed
- Randi Weingarten