As if President Barack Obama’s political machine hasn’t left them battered and bruised enough, Republicans are fretting that it could help Democrats win the House next year.
The president’s deep-pocketed political arm, Organizing for Action, can’t by law spend most of its money on elections, and officials insist it won’t play directly in the 2014 midterm. But Republicans aren’t buying it: They’re convinced OFA will find other, indirect ways to help Democrats capture the House and allow Obama to finish his presidency unchecked by Congress.
When the group launched a series of Internet ads in February pressing Congress to pass a gun control bill, the target list looked like a who’s who of vulnerable House Republicans. Even Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, said recently that OFA “can affect elections even if legally we can’t be involved with them.” After a gun control bill failed in the Senate last week, the group vowed to keep the heat on dissenting members — Republicans and Democrats alike.
While OFA’s plans to solicit big-dollar donations to advance Obama’s agenda have made headlines, its potential role in 2014 has drawn less notice. But Republicans are paying attention.
“We’ll take it seriously. The president is hellbent on taking back the House so he will have no resistance in 2015 and 2016,” said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “It’s all about making Nancy Pelosi speaker again.”
Republicans hold a 17-seat advantage, and handicappers say Democrats have little chance of taking the House. But Republicans say OFA could be a powerful weapon for the opposition.
They have several worries. One is that the not-for-profit OFA, through ads that encourage or discourage lawmakers to vote a particular way, will cast Republican incumbents in an unflattering light. They fear the massive voter database that Obama has built since his 2008 run — now in OFA’s hands — will be deployed on House Democrats’ behalf.
Most troubling of all, Republicans say, is that OFA will use its unlimited donations to keep Democratic voters across the country engaged and motivated to go to the polls. During the last midterm election, when the GOP seized control of the House, Republicans benefited from low Democratic turnout.
Republicans — still picking up the pieces from a disastrous 2012 election — say there’s nothing in their arsenal that can match OFA’s power.
OFA has “the potential to play a significant role if they so choose,” said Brian Walsh, a former NRCC political director. “Any time you have someone from the left getting involved in House races, it’s a challenge, particularly if they have the infrastructure of a presidential candidate. It’s something Republicans are going to have to take into consideration.”
Obama allies insist that there’s nothing political about the newly revamped OFA — its intentions, they say, are strictly policy-focused. They say the group won’t run ads that explicitly call for the defeat or election of a candidate, and it won’t air advocacy commercials close to the election. Last week, the group announced that it raised $4.8 million in the first quarter of 2013.
“Organizing for Action is an issue advocacy group, not an electoral one. We mobilize to support the president’s agenda, an agenda a majority of Americans voted for in November,” Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and OFA’s national chairman, wrote in an email to POLITICO.
“The mission of this organization is to re-balance the power structure away from the special interests that have had undue influence over the policy-making process and give a greater voice to people who are continuing the work of the greatest grassroots movement in history,” he said.