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Democratic Soft Money Group Ramps Up

The Fund for America, a political organization aligned with several major players in Democratic politics, has raised better than $11 million -- largely from wealthy individuals -- since its inception last November and doled out nearly half that sum to various progressive organizations around the country.

FFA, as its known in Democratic circles, is set to report collecting $4.1 million between Jan. 1 and March 31 when its report is due with the Internal Revenue Service on April 15. As a 527 organization, the group can take unlimited donations from individuals but must disclose the names of its contributors.

The vast majority of that cash comes from a stable of well-heeled donors who are familiar to any political junkie. In the first three months of 2008, Steve Bing, a Hollywood producer and longtime ally of the Clintons, gave FFA $2.5 million -- the single largest donation in the period. George Soros, perhaps the best known name in progressive money circles, gave FFA $1 million during the period, bringing his total investment in the venture to $3.5 million.

Other notable givers to FFA in the period include Slim Fast founder S. Daniel Abraham who donated $300,000 and Lee Fikes, the head of Bonanza Oil, who gave the group $300,000 in the first three months of 2008, matching the $300,000 he donated last year.

FFA is organized as a grant-giving organization -- using the cash it collects to fund a variety of progressive causes. Its founders insist it is not primarily an election-year vehicle but rather an attempt to put into place a longer-term conduit for major donors to fund key activities and groups throughout the country.

"FFA was created to promote and support the long-term strength of the progressive movement," said Amy Dacey, the group's executive director. "Beyond our efforts this year, we intend to raise and distribute funds in 2009, 2010, 2011 and beyond. We've got our eye on the long-term success of the progressive movement against the more established and aggressive conservative movement, and we'll settle for nothing less."

Still, while FFA hopes to build a long-term political and policy strategy, its future may well depend on how effectively it functions in the run-up to the November election.

To that end, FFA's largest grants during the first three months of 2008 went to national groups with an eye on the presidential election.

FFA sent $2.5 million to Campaign to Defend America, a 501(c)(4) organization headed by former Washington director Tom Matzzie. That group -- and its plans for the fall -- remain something of a mystery to even some Democratic party insiders although the group did run ads last month in Ohio and Pennsylvania that labeled Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the "McSame" as President Bush on a variety of key issues. The ad buy was estimated at $1 million.

The other major beneficiary of FFA's largesse was America Votes, a 527 organization run by Greg Speed, a former aide to Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.) America Votes, the lone remaining pillar of the trio of soft money groups organized by Democrats in advance of the 2004 election, is designed to coordinate the voter identification and mobilization programs of myriad liberal groups across the country. FFA donated $1,000,000 to America Votes in the period.

Among other national groups receiving contributions from FFA include: Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund ($200,000), ACORN ($200,000), Action Fund ($100,000) and Americans United for Change ($100,000).

FFA also doled out considerable cash to more local organizations in likely November battlegrounds. That included $130,000 to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, $75,000 to a group called Win Minnesota and $65,000 to the Ohio Voter Fund.

With its two potential candidates locked in a seemingly unending battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, the task of holding McCain's feet to the fire will increasingly fall to groups like FFA and those that it funds. To date, there still appears to be real confusion within Democratic ranks about how that accountability effort will happen and who will lead it.

FFA is the key cog in organizing the soft money operations of the left as it carries the blessing of party bigwigs as well as the handful of immensely wealthy donors that will fund the party's effort in 2008. Watch to see just how much these individuals are willing to invest between now and November as it may well determine the ultimate success or failure of FFA and its affiliated groups.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 9, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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