December 16, 2017
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Liberal billionaires bankroll Hillary Clinton’s super PAC attack dog

By Michael Beckel


The 2016 presidential election’s most powerful super PAC is the one backing Democrat Hillary Clinton.

That group, known as Priorities USA Action, has aired about 36,000 TV ads since mid-May, according to data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

Fully 100 percent of them have attacked Clinton’s Republican rival, celebrity businessman Donald Trump.

Live in a swing state? These ads have been unavoidable.

So far in August, Priorities USA Action has aired more than 2,100 ads in Florida — about one ad, on average, every 15 minutes. And in Ohio this month, Priorities USA Action has so far aired more than 1,800 ads — an average of about one every 17 minutes.

This week alone, this anti-Trump attack dog is out with two new ads. Both target residents of Florida and Ohio, as well as voters in Iowa, Nevada and North Carolina.

The ads

Priorities USA Action’s new spots — entitled “Watching” and “Pledge” — are laced with some of Trump’s most contentious remarks, such as when he appeared to mock a disabled reporter and when he suggested that Mexicans who immigrate to the United States are rapists and criminals.

These comments are juxtaposed with video of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in “Pledge,” and, in “Watching,” with shots of people Clinton has dubbed “everyday Americans” — a man washing dishes, a man in a wheelchair, a Korean War veteran, a mother heading out the door to work.

The ads’ sponsor

Allies of President Barack Obama — including former White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney — launched Priorities USA Action in April 2011 to support Obama’s re-election. In 2014, the super PAC transformed itself into a pro-Clinton operation.

Like any super PAC, Priorities USA Action is legally allowed to collect unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations or labor unions — so long as it doesn’t coordinate its spending with the candidate it is seeking to aid.

But that limitation hasn’t stopped Clinton herself, as well as former President Bill Clinton, from helping the super PAC raise money — while also trying to distance herself from it as she touts campaign finance reform.

Who’s behind it?

Priorities USA Action’s chief strategist is Guy Cecil, who served as Hillary Clinton’s political and field director during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. He also served as the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, after a stint as chief of staff for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

Priorities USA Action’s executive director is Anne Caprara, the former vice president of campaigns at EMILY's List, an organization that exists to help abortion rights-supporting Democratic women — including Clinton — win political office.

Several other longtime Democratic operatives and Clinton allies are also involved with the super PAC, including labor lawyer Harold Ickes, EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock and Greg Speed, the president of America Votes, a liberal nonprofit that bills itself as the “coordination hub of the progressive community.”

Money in

Priorities USA Action raised about $110 million from January 2015 through July 2016, according to federal campaign finance filings. That’s already about $31 million more than it raised during the entire 2012 election, when it fought to defeat Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Everyday Americans are not fueling this super PAC: Just 33 Priorities USA Action donors— who each have donated at least $1 million — account for 90 percent of this nine-figure haul, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance records.

The super PAC’s top donor — hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman — alone accounts for $1 out of every $10 Priorities USA Action raised through the end of July.

Overall, Sussman has given $11 million, including $3 million last month, according to the group’s most recent campaign finance report.

Other top donors to the pro-Clinton super PAC include a number of billionaires, including investor George Soros and hedge fund manager James Simons, who have each contributed $7 million.

(The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)

Other Priorities USA Action billionaire backers include SlimFast founder S. Daniel Abraham, who has donated $6 million, and entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who has given $5 million. His wife, Cheryl Saban, a philanthropist and writer, has likewise contributed $5 million.

A number of labor unions are also among Priorities USA Action’s biggest supporters, including the Laborers' International Union of North America, which has contributed $4 million — ranking it as Priorities USA Action’s largest union donor.

Money out

Documents submitted to the Federal Election Commission show that Priorities USA Action has so far spent more than $48 million on ads. (It spent a shade more than $65 million on ads during the 2012 election cycle.)

The bulk of this — about $35 million — has been spent on TV ads focused on voters in nine states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The super PAC has also spent about $10 million on digital ads.

A mix of radio ads and direct mail account for the rest of its 2016 advertising expenditures.

Priorities USA Action spokesman Justin Barasky told the Center for Public Integrity the super PAC is airing ads “where we can make the most difference.”

Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Priorities USA Action has also helped fund other pro-Clinton organizations.

For example, Priorities USA Action has given EMILY’s List’s Women Vote! super PAC about $3 million so far this year, and it gave $1 million to another pro-Clinton super PAC, Correct the Record, in December.

Priorities USA Action also contributed $1.5 million to the committee that hosted the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Furthermore, it gave $50,000 in June to America Votes’ super PAC.

Why it matters

Priorities USA Action exemplifies how Clinton is benefiting from big money in politics while at the same time pledging to curbs its influence.

Democrats have long argued that they shouldn’t “unilaterally disarm” in the campaign fundraising game, and Priorities USA Action has aggressively pursued the money it believes is necessary to help Clinton win the White House.

With fewer than 11 weeks until Election Day, the super PAC — which had about $39 million in the bank heading into August — has no plans to let up.

“Donald Trump is uniquely unfit to be president” Barasky told the Center for Public Integrity. “We want to do everything we can to beat him.”


- Originally appeared at Publicintegrity.org