Donor conference

The annual gathering of the Democracy Alliance, an elite group of wealthy Democrats, had "a surprisingly upbeat mood," according to one attendee, despite the party's relatively small campaign war chest compared with the Republicans. (Getty Images)

A panel of liberal "super PAC" leaders won over a crowd of potential donors at the Mandarin Hotel during this week's closed-door meeting of the Democracy Alliance, an elite group of wealthy Democrats.

The annual gathering is closed to the press, but attendees at the sessions described what one called "a surprisingly upbeat mood" at the event, which included an advisor to investor George Soros and San Francisco-based philanthropist Rob McKay.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the group, as did Rob Stein, one of the Democrats' strategic and intellectual leaders who helped found the alliance several years ago as a way to build political sophistication on the left.

This week, he and others at the conference encouraged a strategy of state-based organizing, which proved effective recently in the Ohio election that saw the repeal of legislation limiting collective-bargaining rights.

One session put the spotlight on the need for Democrats to help raise big dollar donations, as Republicans have done with much greater success.

Bill Burton, the former White House spokesman, talked about the necessity of raising big money early, partly because this year's elections are already so contentious and partly because campaign activity has already started.

After leaving the White House last year, Burton helped found Priorities USA, one of the super PACs that will back President Obama and other Democrats.

Others on the panel included representatives of the House and Senate Majority PAC organizations, and American Bridge, which is providing research and media support for Democratic candidates. These super PACs can raise unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals provided they disclose donors and act independently of any candidate's official campaign.

Some of them, including Priorites USA, have set up nonprofit affiliates that can collect unlimited amounts from donors who wish to remain anonymous. Participation from well-heeled individuals and groups is necessary to compete with Republican organizations like American Crossroads, the groups founded by Karl Rove and other conservatives. The Crossroads groups are expected to raise more than $240 million for the 2012 campaign, while Burton's Priorities expects to raise less than half that.

The Democrats' presentation got results: Several donors opened their checkbooks immediately afterward, handing contributions to Burton and other super Pac leaders.

A month ago the mood was somber among those planning to attend the gathering. Republicans have been far outpacing the Democrats in fundraising and seemed to have a significant edge in enthusiasm as well. The labor victory in Ohio provided some new optimism and energy, participants said.

The conference opened Thursday night with a panel discussion featuring the founder of American Bridge, David Brock, and Grover Norquist, a leader in the conservative movement, talking about the coming elections.

Norquist came in for tough and sometimes hostile questioning from the Democrats about his views on government and taxes.  He characterized his unlikely encounter with the liberals as "mild bloodless bear baiting."

tom.hamburger@latimes.com
melanie.mason@latimes.com