Democrats putting together new independent political organizations for the 2012 campaign are embracing a model that will allow them to conceal their donors — the very tactic for which they criticized Republicans in 2010.
Majority PAC, a new group aimed at electing Democrats to the Senate, and American Bridge 21st Century, which will serve as a research hub, are being organized as so-called super political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money from contributors whose donations are reported to the Federal Election Commission. But both are also affiliated with nonprofit 501(c)(4) social welfare groups that can raise money from undisclosed donors and give money directly to super PACs.
The same dual structure is being considered by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, two former White House aides who are likely to launch their own independent expenditure effort in support of President Obama's reelection, according to people familiar with the plans.
As a spokesman for Obama, Burton repeatedly hammered Republican groups for their lack of transparency in 2010. He declined to comment.
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Obama had fought for legislation requiring that outside groups disclose their donors, and that despite "the political advantages the current system allows for," he would continue to do so.
The move toward using 501(c)(4) groups reflects a widespread consensus among Democrats that they were insufficiently aggressive in raising large donations last year after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed independent groups to accept contributions from corporations and unions.
It is also confirmation that Democrats, including Obama, failed to sway voters with their attacks on the sources of the money that financed GOP-allied groups formed after the high court ruling.
"In 2010 … we sat on our hands in protest and got stomped on the airwaves and at the ballot box," said Chris Harris, a spokesman for American Bridge. "Politics is a prize fight, and when you're getting pounded in the ring, you don't complain to the ref, you fight back."
Campaign finance reform advocates decried the development, saying they would press Democrats to reveal their funding sources.
"This is what we face in the brave new world created by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision," said longtime reform advocate Fred Wertheimer. "We are now in an arms race — not just in terms of expenditures by presidential candidates, but by outside organizations."
In relying on undisclosed donations to fund politically active nonprofits, Democrats are undermining the major line of attack Obama used last year.
"The American people deserve to know who's trying to sway their elections, and you can't stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people," Obama told voters in Philadelphia in October.
A spokesman for two GOP groups co-founded by Karl Rove was amused at news that leading Democrats would be setting up their own similarly structured organizations.
"This is stunning in its hypocrisy," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, a super PAC, and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit organization that accepts unlimited, undisclosed contributions. Rove is involved with both organizations.
Craig Varoga, who heads the nonprofit Patriot Majority USA, the sister organization of Majority PAC, emphasized that his 501(c)(4) group was focused on policy areas such as economic development, job training and education.
Lawrence Noble, a former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission who is now in private practice, said the decision by leading Democrats to organize in that fashion "is a sign that the balance of power continues to shift in campaigns" to outside groups that can raise unlimited amounts of undisclosed money. Donations to candidates' campaigns are limited.
Among groups to benefit from the new rules was the America's Families First Action Fund, which last year received a $1-million contribution from a related nonprofit organization. Cristina Uribe, the recipient group's advisor, said the funding reflected reality.
"We play by the rules that exist when we take the field," she said.
Kim Geiger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.