A Democratic-leaning California group is planning to spend some $10 million before November's election.
PowerPAC.org, which aided Obama in the Democratic Primary, is launching a voter registration drive in the African-American south and a media campaign targeting Hispanic voters in four Western states, said the group's president, Steve Phillips. He said the aim was to capitalize on Obama's momentum to benefit progressive causes and candidates around the country.
"This is a larger movement—it's not just a question of getting one man elected," said Philips, a former president of the San Francisco Board of Education.
PowerPAC was founded in 2004 to back progressive causes in California, with an emphasis on minority issues. But it came to national attention last year, when Philips launched a group called "Vote Hope," with the goal of helping Obama collect early votes in the California primary, in which voters could mail in their ballots well before election day. Obama—who at the time was criticizing his rivals' support from outside groups—sent the group a letter stressing that supporters should give directly to the campaign, and the Clinton and Edwards campaigns pointed to its existence as a mark of Obama's hypocrisy on outside groups.
Obama's stated hostility to independent groups didn't shut down PowerPAC, but it did significantly dampen the flow of money to other ambitious Democratic efforts. Now PowerPAC is among the few independent organizations left supporting Obama. The largest may be America Votes, which coordinates the field organizing of liberal groups, while labor unions are also spending heavily.
PowerPAC is organized as a 501c4 non-profit, so it isn't required to disclose its donors or much of its spending. It reported spending more than $642,000 in direct electioneering—television ads and direct mail—in the primary. Phillips said it spent much more mobilizing voters, an expense which doesn't need to be reported. The group has access to cash—Phillips is the son-in-law of Herb and Marion Sandler, among the largest Democratic donors in the country—though he said he'd been raising outside money for this effort.
In the primary, the group aired radio ads urging black voters to participate, and worked with black groups to encourage turnout in the south and also to turn out Latino voters in states including California and Texas and encourage them to support Obama.
Philips said that, despite the campaign's letter, he sees his group as operating within the spirit of the campaign.
"Our understanding of what they're saying is they don't want negative attack ads by outside groups, and we've always respected that and honored that," he said. "We've never understood them to say they don't want community based groups increasing civic engagement—that's the tradition Barack comes out of himself."
For the general election, the group is launching two projects. In the black south, it's going to finance existing African-American groups, like local NAACP chapters, to register and mobilize voters. Because Obama has built his campaign largely on volunteers and newcomers to the political process, Philips said, there's a cadre of experienced black organizations and organizers left to be mobilized.
The group will do voter registration work in Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, Philips said. Philips, who came of political age on Jesse Jackson's campaign for president, said he thought the increases in minority voting this year could transform local political landscapes as Jackson did.
"It could work the same way, if not even bigger than the Jackson campaign," he said.
Philips said his group would spend about seven million dollars in the South, leaving about three million for advertising targeting Hispanic voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas.
Obama aides declined to comment on the group's efforts, and also played down the impact of outside groups.
Phillips, though, said he hoped he was building the beginnings of a progressive infrastructure that could stand outside, and to the left of, an Obama presidency.
"This is long term," he said.
"We think that the excitement about Barack is going to bring out people whose engagement can have a long term impact on the local policy issues within those states."