WASHINGTON -- As the two major parties prepare for an epic battle for control of the Senate this year, some Democrats are questioning the decision by one of their richest political action committees to sit out the midterm campaign and hold its money for Hillary Rodham Clinton's expected White House campaign in 2016.
Some Democrats argue that the decision could help the Republicans seize control of the Senate next fall, making it impossible for President Barack Obama to get anything done and perhaps setting the same stage for Ms. Clinton, even if she wins the presidency. Others counter that the political action committee always was devoted to presidential campaigns -- first for Mr. Obama and now for Ms. Clinton -- and that congressional Democrats will still have plenty of money this year for hard-fought campaigns.
At the center is Priorities USA Action, once Mr. Obama's big campaign fundraising group. Since it helped him win re-election in 2012, the PAC has morphed into an important fundraising vehicle for Ms. Clinton's potential campaign and is devoting its dollars and energy to promoting her.
The group raised $79.6 million for the 2012 campaign. Taking it out of action "removes the top echelon," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
This comes as Democrats worry that they'll need all the help they can get this year. They see themselves up against big Republican spending in a year when the GOP is well-positioned to win Senate control. Republicans need a net gain of six seats. As many as seven are seen as potential GOP pickups: Alaska, Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Montana and South Dakota.
A Republican-led Senate not only would handcuff Mr. Obama during his last two years, but also would mean that 2016's presidential winner is likely to start with a sizable Senate GOP caucus. Analysts expect that Republicans will continue to control the House.
"If we lose the Senate and don't try to retake the House in 2014, it will further erode the ability of President Obama to get anything done for the people," says a petition posted to the website of the liberal group MoveOn.org. The petition, posted by supporters, urges Priorities USA Action to reconsider its decision. MoveOn.org itself has taken no position on the PAC's decision.
"If you don't help to keep the Senate and regain the House, ... what good will it do you to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016?" wrote one signer, who identified herself as Diane Olson of Santa Monica, Calif. "She won't be able to get anything done as a Democrat. She will have to join the Republicans."
Former Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod has jumped in as well, tweeting earlier this month, "With the Senate seriously at risk, and the [libertarian Republican] Koch brothers spending prodigiously, shouldn't Dem[ocratic] funders be focused on '14, and not '16 races?"
Priorities USA Action didn't respond to requests for comment.
Many Democratic campaign officials and donors said they weren't too concerned. At the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, spokesman Justin Barasky boasted about fundraising so far. "Democrats have consistently outraised our Republican counterparts, both at the committee and candidate level," he said. The committee raised $52 million last year, well above the Republicans' $36.6 million.
Priorities USA Action's decision won't prevent large donors from being active this year, said Robert Borosage, president of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future. He noted that a retired hedge fund investor, Tom Steyer, has pledged to spend as much as $100 million to champion climate-change abatement measures in the 2014 election.
Political committees supporting certain types of candidates are not unusual. The Democrats' Senate Majority PAC, for instance, has given money this cycle to help the party's Senate candidates. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's PAC to the Future has helped 28 House and one Senate candidate this cycle.