WASHINGTON — Organizing for Action, the advocacy group supporting President Barack Obama's agenda, is scaling back its fundraising efforts and cutting its paid staff in half as focus shifts to the approaching midterm elections, three Democratic officials said.
Formed last year from the remnants of Obama's vaunted re-election campaign, OFA raised more than $30 million in its first 15 months as it worked to build support for Obama priorities like health care, immigration and climate change. But the group's aggressive courting of big-dollar donors has troubled many Democrats who worry that OFA is siphoning sorely needed dollars from Democratic campaigns just as the party is bracing for a difficult election.
As of May 31, OFA will no longer solicit high-dollar contributions, according to an email obtained by The Associated Press. Kathy Gasperine, the group's development director and a former Obama fundraiser, told top contributors it would "not be giving significant priority to seeking out new major donors."
"During the remainder of 2014, we will work to strengthen our relationships we have with our national leadership, continue our robust digital organizing, and utilize our megaphone to continue to activate our network into issue advocacy," Gasperine wrote.
Large contributions that were previously pledged will still be accepted, Gasperine said. And the group will continue soliciting smaller donations from grassroots supporters, an OFA official said.
At the same time, the group's workforce has shrunk in recent months from a high of more than 200 to just over 100 paid employees, according to a Democrat familiar with the group's workings.
The reduction came as OFA was winding down a major enrollment push for Obama's health care law. The group had staffed up for that campaign and to manage 1,700 participants in its fellowship program, and some were on temporary contracts. Most — but not all — of the departing staffers worked on those projects, said the Democrat, who, like others, wasn't authorized to discuss OFA's internal workings publicly and demanded anonymity.
OFA said a key piece of its mission has been to foster "the next generation of progressive leaders," so it's no surprise that some of the staffers are moving on or joining congressional campaigns now that open enrollment for Obama's health exchanges is closed. The same goes for OFA's donors.
"We understand and expect that some of our more than 420,000 contributors will choose to shift their focus during the midterm season," said OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan.
But the move follows public and private griping by Democratic groups who say OFA is diverting funds that would otherwise go to Democratic candidates, thus hindering the party in the midterms. After all, Democrats have fewer deep-pocketed donors than Republicans.
Case in point: The Democratic National Committee was still more than $14 million in debt in late March, more than a year after helping Obama get re-elected. As the next election approaches, that puts the DNC at a disadvantage compared with the Republican National Committee, which is debt-free.
Michael Fraioli, a Democratic fundraising consultant, said the news that OFA is scaling back would likely be welcomed by Democrats vying for attention from the same group of inundated donors.
"The number of emails you get asking for money is phenomenal," Fraioli said. "This is one less — that's a good thing."
A nonprofit, OFA has pledged not to work on elections. But OFA accepts unlimited contributions for advocacy work, and voluntarily discloses all donations above $250.
Former Obama campaign officials founded OFA early in Obama's second term, seeking to transform his powerful political organization into a grassroots group that could advance his agenda. The group has held thousands of events on issues like gun control and same-sex marriage, and has aired TV ads backing Obama on health care and the economy.
"For a group that's focused on legislative and issue advocacy, it's not only normal but should be expected with good groups that there's an ebb and flow of their staff and the work they do, based on the cyclical nature of the work," said Jeremy Bird, a Democratic strategist who was Obama's national field director in 2012.
But with many of second-term priorities still unfulfilled, some Democrats have questioned the group's effectiveness and the utility of maintaining an Obama-affiliated group separate from the Democratic Party. The group has also faced questions about whether it trades access to Obama for donations — a claim OFA denies.
After the November elections wrap up, OFA expects to resume soliciting major donations and to gear its advocacy work back up, officials said. It's not yet clear whether the group will return to previous staffing levels or how much there will be left for OFA to do as Obama's agenda assumes a lower national profile during his final two years in office.