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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Priorities USA Action

Political leanings: Democratic/liberal

2018 total spending: $44.8 million 

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC, was formed in 2011 by ex-White House staffers Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney to help reelect President Barack Obama in 2012. In 2016, it supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, spending more money than any other super PAC.

Priorities USA Action states that its mission is to help build “a powerful progressive movement that informs, energizes, and empowers average Americans to fight and win for their priorities in 2020 and beyond.”

Guy Cecil, who was political director of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, serves as chairman of the super PAC. Patrick McHugh, who was research director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, serves as the PAC’s executive director.

As a super PAC, Priorities USA Action can raise unlimited amounts of money, but is required to disclose its donors. Priorities USA, also formed in 2011, is the super PAC’s affiliated 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its donors. The group also has a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Priorities USA Foundation.

In 2017, Priorities USA Action merged with another nonprofit group called Every Citizen Counts, a voting rights organization, according to Cecil. The Washington Post said Priorities USA Action has a “broad portfolio, assuming tasks that traditionally are in the purview of the national party.”

During the 2016 cycle, the group spent a total of $133.4 million in independent expenditures, part of the super PAC’s $190 million in total spending. The vast majority of that — roughly $132 million — was spent on the presidential race.

Some major donors to Priorities USA Action during the 2016 cycle included Saban Entertainment founder Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl, who donated a combined $12.23 million. Others included Paloma Partners founder and hedge fund manager Donald Sussman ($20 million) and billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

The super PAC also received large sums from labor union PACs, including $5 million from Working for Working Americans and $3.725 million from the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

For the 2018 campaign cycle, the super PAC raised $43.5 million and spent $44.8 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. In 2018, its major donors again included Sussman, who donated $8.5 million, and Soros, who donated $5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Senate Majority PAC was Priorities USA Action’s biggest PAC donor by far in 2018, contributing $14.1 million to the organization. The Senate Majority PAC’s mission is to “win Senate races” for the Democratic Party. 

Priorities USA Action used $27.6 million of its funds in 2018 for independent expenditures, which is spending on advertising that expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a federal candidate. Most of that money, nearly $22 million, went to support Democrats or oppose Republicans in four key Senate races — although the group backed the losers in three of the four races:

  • Florida. Nearly $9.6 million. Republican challenger Rick Scott defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
  • Missouri. About $4 million. Republican challenger Josh Hawley defeated Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
  • Indiana. Slightly more than $3.7 million. Republican challenger Mike Braun defeated Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly.
  • Arizona. About $4.3 million. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeated Republican Martha McSally in a race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. (McSally would later be appointed to replace Sen. John McCain, who died on Aug. 25, 2018.)

In February 2019, the super PAC said that it would spend $100 million in phase one of its two-phase plan to increase Democratic turnout in the 2020 election, focusing its efforts in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. In phase two, which has an undisclosed spending target, Priorities USA Action would turn its attention to “expansion states,” including New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.

Cecil said its voter outreach program will emphasize digital media over television ads — a decision that included promoting Danielle Butterfield to oversee all of its paid media. Butterfield worked on the digital advertising campaigns for the last two Democratic presidential nominees, President Barack Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016. 

According to the most recent FEC data, Priorities USA Action has raised more than $66 million in the 2020 campaign cycle, as of Aug. 31. In March, the super PAC pledged $150 million to ads targeting Trump on healthcare in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona, including $6 million criticizing Trump’s coronavirus response. As of Oct. 15, it has spent more than $55 million against Trump — more than any other political committee.

Sussman is again the top donor at $8 million, with hedge fund billionaire James Simons following at $4 million. Other major donors include tech billionaire Jeffrey Skoll and real estate broker George Marcus, $2 million each; David Shaw, chief scientist at D.E. Shaw Research, $1.5 million; and numerous $1 million donors, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Florida billionaire Marsha Laufer

FactCheck.org Undergraduate Fellow Chelsey Zhu contributed to this article. 

Fact-checking Priorities USA Action:

Democratic Ad Twists Trump’s ‘Hoax’ Comment, April 14