Democrats Now Serve Two Masters: DNC and Organizing for Action

Can the Democratic Party — rarely a smoothly coordinated creature — function when two different outfits in two different cities are trying to run the show?

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Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Organizing for Action dinner in Washington, March 13, 2013.

Can the Democratic Party – rarely a smoothly coordinated creature for starters — function when two different outfits in two different cities are trying to run the show?

The Democratic National Committee is undergoing a recalibration as it learns to live with President Barack Obama’s permanent political presence – the independent issues group Organizing for Action that spun-off from the president’s re-election. Once vertically aligned in party flow chart, the two organizations are now co-equals with Obama at the head – independent organizations that some worry will fight for resources and attention from the president and supporters.

OFA, which transformed itself into an advocacy group in the months since the election and has spent months testing the waters and recruiting staff, is now fully operational. The incessant fundraising and volunteer emails are back. The organization completed its second day of nation-wide events targeted around gun control on Thursday, and is turning its efforts back to immigration reform this week.

When the 2008 Obama campaign ended, it was folded into the DNC as Organizing for America, with the purpose of mobilizing Obama’s base for health care reform and other administration initiatives.  But the effort was a financial drain for the party, prompting the unprecedented formation of an enduring grassroots campaign for the president’s agenda as a 501c(4) this January. The move has prompted a shift in focus for the Democratic National Committee back to its traditional role of winning elections.

“We’re the political arm of the president now that there is no campaign. OFA is exclusively on the issues side,” said DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse, explaining the division of labor. OFA is prohibited from advocating directly for a candidate or party. “The DNC is really on the political side.” Or as Carl Chidlow, the DNC finance director from 2005-9 put it, “[In off years] the DNC is essentially a megaphone and a bank account.”

And free from the burdens of building and maintaining a grassroots army, the DNC is now “hyper-focused” on its political tasks – with an emphasis right out of the gate on voter protection issues, Woodhouse said.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.

Financing: The Democratic National Committee is nearly $22 million in debt, largely the result of a $15 million loan due next June taken shortly after the Democratic Convention last year. The borrowing isn’t unprecedented – the party took out a $15 million loan during the 2010 cycle as well – but the competition for fundraising with the new Obama organization has some state party officials worried. With Obama safely in office for four more years, they wonder if the national party can convert Obama donors to give to the Democratic Party. None would speak on the record citing relationships with the DNC and the Obama campaign.

“The fear seems to be that donors will feel like they’ve already tithed for the church,” Chidlow said. “We haven’t’ seen that yet.”

But DNC officials stress that the new arrangement is an asset not a drag on performance. Jordan Kaplan, one of Obama’s earliest fundraisers, joined the DNC in February as finance director – and after only fundraising for his new organization since the election, Obama committed to a half-dozen fundraisers for the party including several in California this week.

“The RNC made the decision — and the Romney campaign — made the decision not to spend all their money and lost,” Woodhouse said, responding to critics — especially Republicans who’ve taken potshots at the DNC over the borrowing. “We went into debt and won. I’d rather be us than them.”

Woodhouse said that efforts are underway to recruit more Obama donors to become traditional donors to the DNC — with an emphasis on keeping them involved in the party’s operations much in the way Obama kept his financial backers in the loop on the campaign.

“We want to keep regular contact with donors — not just contact when we want a check,” he said. “It is important to have that relationship with Obama donors.”

Technology: The former Obama campaign maintains control over its vaunted Project Narwhal, which combined data from once-separate sources like emails, form responses, and volunteer activity with donor data and the Democratic Party’s voter file. Narwhal allowed the campaign to identify those supporters most likely to volunteer, donate or make phone calls. Much of the underlying data — the records of the millions of Obama campaign supporters — remains with the dormant Obama campaign and not the DNC.

To date, only OFA has been allowed to use the list, but in a sign that Obama is likely to allow it to be used for campaign purposes by other organizations, it was leased — not transferred — to OFA, where it would be prohibited from campaign usage.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Democratic National Committee has gained ownership over Project Narwhal. In fact, Bryan Whitaker, DNC Technology Director, said, “The DNC does not own or control Narwhal.” Discussions regarding the future of Obama campaign-generated data and technology are ongoing.