WASHINGTON After taking a beating at the ballot box in 2010 and losing the messaging war on healthcare reform to well-financed opponents, Democrats don't plan to take the high ground on campaign finance and "Super PACs" going into November's election.
Traditionally, the party favors fundraising limits and disclosure of donors. But since a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed independent groups raise and spend unlimited funds to help campaigns, wealthy Republicans started donating to dozens of such "super" political action committees and plan to help their party outspend Democrats in what is expected to be the most expensive campaign in U.S. history.
That, according to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has forced her party to adapt to a campaign finance system that she says allows wealthy anonymous donors to try to "buy" elections with unlimited donations.
"We could set an example and lose," Wasserman Schultz told the Reuters Washington Summit on Wednesday. But, she added: "I'm not going to stand on principle only to get run over by a truck."
Democrat Bill Burton helped create the Priorities USA Action Super PAC, which also has a non-profit advocacy arm, in 2011 to support President Barack Obama's re-election effort.
Burton said the group had raised $40 million so far and plans to spend $100 million in this election cycle.
That pales, though, next to entities like the conservative Crossroads groups founded by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove. Crossroads, which are a Super PAC and a related non-profit, has pledged to spend up to $300 million on 2012 races, two-thirds of it on defeating Obama.
Efforts on both sides of the aisle are expected to top $1 billion in campaign spending this year.
Democrats at the Reuters summit said that through traditional channels, groups such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are out-raising their Republican counterparts.
But that will be far from counterbalancing the Super PACS and their wealthy backers, a lesson already ruefully learned.
"Having watched what happened in the 2010 election ... we were concerned about what the outside Republican money could mean in this election," said Burton.
The fuzzy lines surrounding political donations surfaced on Wednesday when the New York attorney general said he is investigating contributions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a tax-exempt group.
The Chamber, is not required to disclose its donors, has been active in recent elections backing mostly Republican candidates.
One of the outside groups whose spending and fundraising largely remain a mystery is the Chamber of Commerce, which backs business-friendly candidates and policies and commonly falls on the Republican side.
On Wednesday, in the latest salvo against secret donors, a source confirmed to Reuters that the New York attorney general was investigating a charity connected to the Chamber for illegal donations.
'NOT THE RULES WE WISH WE HAD'
The role of Super PACS was seen in the bitterly contested Republican primary battle this spring.
Candidates like former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were able to keep their campaigns going, and keep ads on the air, much longer with help from deep-pocketed political sugar daddies: businessman Foster Friess and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, respectively.
Burton said Democrats, having surveyed the landscape, are warming to the fight.
"They are getting engaged at a much brisker pace than they were previously because if they don't, there will never be reform," said Burton. "We go into this campaign season with the rules we have, not the rules we wish we had."
Guy Cecil, who runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said his party was "not going to unilaterally disarm and allow the other side to buy the election."
While praising the quality of campaigns many Democrats are running, "I don't think that that message alone is strong enough to overcome $1 billion in spending."
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(Additional reporting by Alexander Cohen and Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by Ros Krasny and Eric Walsh)