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Obama donors lagging in Mass.

Far fewer give maximum as enthusiasm wanes

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 23, 2012
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The number of Massachusetts supporters contributing the maximum to President Obama’s campaign fund has plunged nearly 50 percent compared with his 2008 fledgling run, reflecting a sharp drop in enthusiasm after the president’s first term.

The decline has forced Democrats to make up the difference with bigger contributions from fewer donors. Cash from an elite corps of Massachusetts backers has gushed into the Democratic National Committee, which has much higher contribution limits than the Obama campaign.

The net effect is the Bay State’s reputation as an ATM for national Democrats remains robust - even as financial supporters have adjusted to backing a White House incumbent whose first term diminished the raw exuberance of four years ago.

“It’s harder to get quite as galvanized about his reelection as compared to when he was purely a symbol of incredible promise, without the baggage of four years of reality dragging him down,’’ said Gabor Garai, a Boston attorney and Obama fund-raiser who has tapped a network of contributors for both campaigns. “Today we have an incumbent president who’s had to face some enormous difficulties.’’

Ten of Obama’s top former and current Massachusetts fund-raisers said in interviews with the Globe that they remain optimistic more cash will flow to Obama’s campaign in coming months, especially with the president’s planned appearance at a June 25 fund-raiser at Symphony Hall, his first Massachusetts trip of the year.

Boston advertising magnate Jack Connors, who held a $17,900-a-head dinner at his Brookline home last May that jointly raised more than $2 million for Obama and the DNC, said he is planning a smaller event for the president when he is in Boston next month that Connors is confident will bring in another couple of million.

“It used to be we could round up the usual suspects but now we may have to go a little deeper. We may have to go to the bench. But I’m not worried,’’ said Connors, who displays a gold framed photo of him with Obama in his 60th floor office of the Hancock Tower in the Back Bay.

Top bundlers described a far different atmosphere than four years ago. In the 2008 campaign, every single week for the better part of two years, more than 100 Massachusetts fund-raisers converged in a conference room of the Boston law firm Foley Hoag. There were not enough chairs, not enough coffee. They crowded into doorways, dialed in by speaker phone - eager to be a part of the breathless frenzy that some likened to a revival.

For Obama, whose political star first rose in Boston when he delivered the keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the passion he engendered among Bay State donors in 2008 helped his campaign shatter presidential fund-raising records, and Massachusetts ranked fourth among states contributing to Obama.

By this point in the first campaign, Obama had raised $7.4 million from Massachusetts, including maximum contributions from 1,463 individuals. So far in 2012 the haul has fallen to $5.5 million, with just 739 individuals kicking in the maximum of $2,500 for either the primary or the general election, according to the latest Federal Election Commission data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Washington.

The Obama team has been able to make up for the loss by fund-raising jointly with the DNC - an option unavailable at this point four years ago when he had yet to clinch the nomination, and which, under FEC rules, has a much higher limit for contributions: $30,800.

The DNC’s haul from Massachusetts tripled from February 2008 to February 2012, the last date numbers were available, with $3.9 million coming through Obama’s joint fund-raising effort. The strategy this time is to hold a smaller number of more intimate, higher dollar events to court the wealthiest donors.

The money raised through the DNC - which can be spent on advertising, field organization, polling, and other activities - provides an invaluable resource to the campaign, which aims to invest the funds in critical swing states.

“In total we have raised $2 million more out of Massachusetts this time than we did last time by working with the DNC from the very start,’’ said a campaign aide. “It’s the fundamental difference of being the incumbent in the race.’’

Local Obama fund-raisers point to a myriad of possible explanations as to why contributions to the campaign itself have lagged - from the recession hurting donors’ pocketbooks to the attention many Democrats are now bestowing on competitive Senate and House races.

Without a contested presidential primary, they say, Obama’s money apparatus was slower at getting off the ground this election cycle.

And there is little argument that it would be nearly impossible to replicate the inspirational fervor of Obama’s campaign as the country’s first black presidential nominee, which drew many neophytes who had never before raised money for a political figure but embraced his message of hope and change.

Connors said he is motivated by the 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for super PACS to gain outsized influence during this presidential contest by allowing unlimited contributions on behalf of candidates.

Super PACs backing Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, have raised nearly $57 million compared with $10.6 million for those supporting Obama. The Democratic nightmare, others echoed, is that come October, Republican-backed super PACS will dump millions of dollars in negative ads in key swing states.

Connors, like several other Obama fund-raisers, is also raising money for Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign - a heated race that Massachusetts Democrats appear more engaged in at this time because of the importance of retaining the Senate majority.

“Elizabeth Warren has sucked a lot of air out of the room,’’ said a 2008 Obama fund-raiser who asked not to be identified out of deference to the campaign. “She has supplanted Barack Obama as this year’s phenom. So with Obama without a primary opponent, it’s like, what’s the sense of urgency?’’

Former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis said, “That doesn’t mean we’re not all going to contribute to Obama’s campaign, but in terms of extra fund-raising in Massachusetts, it’s clear that it’s the Warren candidacy that we’re all concerned about.’’

Many Bay State Democratic fund-raisers have also been energized by Joseph Kennedy’s congressional campaign, and some incumbent House Democrats, such as William Keating, Niki Tsongas, and John Tierney, are also fighting to hang on to their seats.

“If you’re raising money for Obama, all of this hurts,’’ said Phil Johnston, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “The economy is bad and it’s a much more competitive environment in Massachusetts for fund-raising. How many times can I call my friends looking for money? There’s only so much money to go around.’’

Tom Lesser, a Northampton attorney and Obama bundler, said he has not found the excitement around Warren’s and Kennedy’s campaigns to have eroded Obama’s support.

“Rather than saying people aren’t giving to the president, I’d say people are giving to all three,’’ Lesser said. “If only one were running, they’d be giving more to one.’’

The current challenge is to reeducate and excite nontraditional donors - the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who provided a new group of high-dollar fund-raisers in 2008 as well as the slew of first-time givers who plunked down $100 online - about why this election is just as important, said Larry Rasky, a Boston-based public relations strategist and Obama bundler.

“There were a lot of hopes and dreams attached to 2008 and governing takes the luster off that excitement, so there’s definitely this lack of magic this time,’’ said Rasky, who served as communications director for Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bids in 1987 and 2007 and who cohosted a fund-raising dinner headlined by Biden at Radius on Tuesday. “It’s a difficult process of taking a donor like that who saw all things possible in the immediacy and convince them to step up again.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.

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