Priorities USA (P-USA) and its sister organization, Priorities USA Action (P-USAA), were established in April 2011 to help reelect President Barack Obama by means of advertising and fundraising campaigns. From the outset, their stated goal was to raise some $100 million for that purpose before the 2012 election.
P-USA, registered with the Internal Revenue Service under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, is permitted to accept donations of any amount from corporations, labor unions and individual contributors; is not required to disclose the identity of its donors; and produces electioneering communications and issue ads that may mention federal politicians by name but cannot expressly advocate for their election or defeat.
P-USAA, registered with the IRS under Section 527 of the U.S. tax code, is likewise permitted to raise unlimited amounts of money but is obliged to disclose who its donors are. Further, it bankrolls the production of advertisements that do overtly advocate for or against specific federal political candidates. During its first two months of operation, P-USAA raised $3.2 million, including $2 million from film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and another $500,000 each from the Service Employees International Union and Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, founder of the Newsweb Corporation. Other early donors to P-USAA included Rob McKay, Ellen Malcolm, and Harold Ickes. By the end of June 2011, the two Priorities organizations had raised a combined $5 million.
Both Priorities groups were founded by a pair of ex-White House staffers: Bill Burton, who was President Obama’s first deputy press secretary, and Sean Sweeney, who served as a senior adviser to Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Theodore Johnston, a lawyer who headed Obama’s Florida fundraising committee during the 2008 presidential campaign, is the executive director of both groups. Notwithstanding these strong ties to Obama, White House press secretary Jay Carney contended that neither of the newly formed groups was working in concert with the President. “We don't control outside groups,” Carney said in April 2011. “These are not people working for the administration.”
Longtime Democratic consultant Paul Begala is a senior advisor to both P-USA and P-USAA. Some Democratic legislators objected to the formation of P-USA because President Obama — arguing that the Supreme Court’s then-recent Citizens United decision had unleashed a flood of corporate donations that were destructive to the political process — had previously criticized Republican groups for failing to disclose the identities of their donors. Former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, for one, lamented that P-USA’s founders were “trying to become corporate-lite” and were thus “playing with the Devil.”
P-USA's first major political expenditure took place in June 2011, when it paid $750,000 for the production and broadcast of a series of television ads in five swing states — Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Colorado — ads suggesting that Republicans supported a plan which would “essentially end Medicare for future retirees [and] slash education while giving huge tax breaks to big oil and the wealthy.” The ad concluded with the narrator saying: “We can’t rebuild America if we tear down the middle class.”
Priorities USA consistently echoes Democratic Party talking points in its ads and communiques. In September 2011, for instance, P-USA asserted that “after three years of relentless Republican efforts to justify tax breaks for the rich, Americans still maintain their fundamental belief that the wealthy should contribute more than they currently do.” That same month, the organization characterized Republican opponents of the DREAM Act — which would allow illegal-alien students to attend college at discounted tuition rates and to earn conditional permanent residency and a path to citizenship — as anti-Hispanic racists. Moreover, P-USA pledged to “play an important role” in reminding voters about Republicans' allegedly distasteful “right-wing talking points ... on education, job creation, immigration and taxes.”
Also in September 2011, P-USA held a lavish reception in Chicago for President Obama's leading fundraisers.