After taking notes and offering a general briefing on the campaign, Plouffe left the room. Moments later, Sean Sweeney, who co-founded Priorities USA Action with Burton, asked the men for donations. In the weeks after the meeting, Stryker donated $1.5 million to Priorities USA, according to data published by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Plouffe declined to comment through a White House spokeswoman. Stryker, through a spokesman, also declined to comment.
More dollars, higher stakes
It is not uncommon for a president or his top aide to court political donors. Clinton invited several to sleepovers at the White House, and George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove pursued contributors assiduously. But this presidential cycle, the stakes are different, in part because the key donors are no longer giving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but millions.
In some cases, the big donations this time are coming from corporations or individuals facing federal regulatory action, or federal contractors or employees with a lot at stake.
Last year, for example, the union representing air traffic controllers gave $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC, a record amount of support for a presidential candidate by the union. Controllers have good reasons to support Obama, many of them financial and personal. His election ended a three-year negotiation stalemate with the Federal Aviation Administration, and within nine months, it led to a new contract that guaranteed favorable work rules and 3 percent raises every year. Union officials point out that the contribution came from voluntary donations from members, not dues.
While some insiders say Obama expects to have enough money to compete, there is growing worry about the down-ballot effect of the GOP money edge.
Nearly every political cycle raises more money than the one before, but the record being set now is remarkable for several reasons. First, it marks the first presidential election year in which corporations, labor groups and individuals can legally provide unlimited funds to political causes. Second, it has produced a new class of mega-donors who have the potential to wield extraordinary influence on candidates and elected officials and the policies they set.
Rich Republican donors have far outspent Democratic contributors. Las Vegas casino executive Sheldon Adelson, for instance, already has spent tens of millions to help GOP candidates.
The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics predicts that the 2012 election will involve spending of about $6 billion or more, compared with $5.4 billion in 2008.
Emanuel resigned his honorary campaign chairman title in a nod to Federal Election Commission rules that prohibit coordination between the supposedly independent super PACs and the official campaigns. Romney and Obama both have close advisers running their super PACs. But because of the regulations, officials from both campaigns say they maintain a wall between the campaign operations and the “independent expenditures” of the super PACs.
Hamburger reported from Washington. Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.