By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats, badly outspent in congressional elections last year, fired their first shot on Wednesday against conservative groups in the advertising wars running up to the 2012 presidential election.
Priorities USA, a new political fundraising group run by a former aide to President Barack Obama, will spend $750,000 on its first television advertising in politically vital states like Iowa and Florida to help re-elect Obama.
Democrats were outgunned by tens of millions of dollars by Republican-backed independent groups at the midterm elections last year when Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.
They now appear to be catching up. Priorities is expected to report in coming days having pulled in some $4 million to $5 million in its first two months of operations, according to the group. Republican-backed American Crossroads reported last week that it took in $3.8 million since January.
"Democrats will not let (the) secret cash onslaught go unanswered this time," former Obama aide Bill Burton said in a tweet announcing the advertising push on Wednesday.
Priorities USA is the Democrats' answer to groups like American Crossroads, conceived in part by Republican operative Karl Rove, and Americans for Prosperity, backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries.
An arm of Crossroads fired the opening salvo earlier this month by investing $5 million of a planned $20 million in what it called a "massive advertising blitz" to blast Obama over the fledgling economic recovery. The group's goal is to spend $120 million during the 2012 cycle.
"We are admittedly late to the game here," Burton told Reuters.
Technically speaking, 'independent groups' are typically partisan but can have no formal coordination with political campaigns, and are subject to much looser spending and disclosure rules.
Such outside spending dwarfed funding by the Republican and Democratic parties and some campaign finance advocates say played a key role in unseating certain Democratic incumbents in 2012.
Spending by these partisan organizations is not new but Republican-backed groups took it to a new level last year, in part because of the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" ruling in 2010 that killed limits on corporate spending on independent broadcasts.
Spending by these outside groups jumped 130 percent to $280 million in 2010 from two years earlier, according to George Washington University's Campaign Finance Institute.
The group noted that these numbers are understated, since some spending is not subject to public reporting.
Republicans took the lead with $185 million in outside spending, with Democrats spending $87 million.
"There is no greater threat to our majority than the deep pockets and nasty tactics of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and their network of corporate-backed special interest groups," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an email last week seeking donations to back Majority PAC, another independent spending group.
Majority PAC, started in part by a former aide to Reid, is devoted to keeping the Senate Democratic, and House Majority PAC seeks to take back the House. A fourth group called American Bridge is charged with rapid-fire opposition research.
American Bridge will "track" candidates at Republican campaign events for video that could be used in advertising.
(Reporting by Kim Dixon; Editing by Eric Walsh)