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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Priorities USA/Priorities USA Action

Political leanings: Democratic/Liberal

Spending target: $100 million

Priorities USA and its sister organization, Priorities USA Action, were formed in April 2011 by ex-White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney as a Democratic counter to American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS. Burton was President Obama’s deputy press secretary and Sweeney was a senior adviser to Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Priorities USA Action is a so-called “super PAC” registered with the Federal Election Commission. It can raise unlimited amounts of money but must disclose the source of its donations. It filed statement of organization papers on April 28 and raised $3.2 million in its first two months, according to the group’s midyear report. Most of that money came from film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, who donated $2 million. Katzenberg is also a major fundraiser for the president’s reelection. He has raised more than $500,000, according to the Obama campaign.

The PAC also received $500,000 each from the Service Employees International Union and Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, founder of the Newsweb Corp.

Priorities USA is a 501(c)(4) organization registered with the IRS. It can raise unlimited amounts of money and does not have to disclose its donors. (The IRS maintains records online for political organizations, but there is no record of Priorities USA. Burton said the group did register with the IRS and has started to raise money.)

Theodore “Teddy” Johnston, a lawyer who headed Obama’s Florida fundraising committee in the 2008 campaign, serves as the executive director of both groups and oversees the fundraising operation, Burton told us. Until recently, Johnston was chief of staff to the International Trade Administration in the Department of Commerce.

Burton and Sweeney both hold the title of senior strategist. Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic consultant and CNN political contributor, is also a senior adviser to the groups, Burton said.

The formation of Priorities USA was controversial among some Democrats because Obama has criticized Republican groups that do not disclose their donors — arguing that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of corporate donations that have distorted the political process. The party’s Senate leaders have been seeking, without success, to pass legislation that would require such groups to disclose their donors. Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold — author of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, which was weakened by the Citizens United ruling — told Huffington Post that Priorities USA’s founders are “playing with the Devil.”

In April, Politico obtained a memo written by Burton and Sweeney to potential donors that defended the formation of the groups. The memo said the groups were being formed “to counter the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove.” Burton and Sweeney wrote: “Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars. We will comply with all applicable rules and laws but we won’t be boxed in by a double standard.”

Burton told us that his goal is to raise “probably about $100 million.” He acknowledged that the group won’t be able to match Crossroads, which had a fundraising goal of $120 million but then revised it to $240 million. However, the group so far has fallen short of its lofty fundraising goals. As of June 30, 2012, Priorities USA Action had raised $20.7 million.

In the first sign of things to come, Crossroads aired a TV ad in June attacking Obama’s economic record, and Priorities USA Action launched a counterattack ad — which we covered in our June 30 Wire post, “Dueling Economic Ads.”

Update, Aug. 6: We updated this item to reflect campaign finance data through June 30, 2012.