Elizabeth Warren has sworn off attending big-money private fundraisers. But a small group of Hollywood writers and producers recently gathered over drinks to talk about how to raise money for Warren’s presidential campaign without her.
Warren’s personal ban on behind-closed-doors fundraising — a practice she now criticizes for giving the wealthy undue access to politicians — presents “a bit of a challenge” for the group, said writer and producer Franklin Hardy, who supports Warren’s stance. “Do we have a stand-up comedy night at somebody’s house? Can we get her to Skype in? Or do we just have big get-togethers?”
While accepting that money won’t violate Warren’s anti-access pledge, it does highlight a shift by her campaign and others in the 2020 presidential race. After spending the first months of 2019 fixated on small-dollar online support and adopting rhetoric shunning bigger donors, campaigns are now taking stronger steps to bring wealthy and well-connected supporters into the fold. Jolted by Joe Biden’s splashy $6.3 million first day in the Democratic primary, many of Biden’s rivals are increasingly hungry for bigger donors’ support.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who raises most of his funds online from small donors, is set to hold his first high-dollar event of the campaign in New York City this week, where attendees have to pledge to raise $25,000 for some tickets. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is holding high-dollar events in cities across the country as he tries to collect on his newfound fame with donors.
Hardy’s planning is part of a wider effort to help Warren collect big checks: Warren campaign workers are also in touch with other well-connected volunteers who want to raise money for the Massachusetts senator. And in June, Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign will fete people who agree to raise big money for her at a meeting for Harris’ growing national finance committee in California. The fundraisers will be treated to a look inside the Harris operation, including talks from campaign officials about her strategy and path to victory in 2020, and details on Harris’ volunteer training program.
Because virtually all of the major Democratic candidates have said they don’t want help from super PACs, the maximum any individual donor can give to support their campaigns is $2,800. And while that pales in comparison to the six- and seven-figure sums some contributors have donated to super PACs in recent elections, those $2,800 checks are still significant for campaigns — even more so when well-connected donors can entice dozens of their friends and acquaintances to give as well. With the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raised more than 80 percent of his campaign money from donations of less than $200 during the first three months of the year, most candidates are actively seeking money from both small-dollar online donors and larger donors.
“Money, unfortunately, is critical to getting your message out,” said Rufus Gifford, finance director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. “Our eventual nominee will have built that campaign war chest and have the resources to deliver his or her message.”
Lining up early support from wealthy and influential backers has long been a key step on any presidential campaign checklist. But this year, many Democrats did less outreach and kept their groundwork hushed, opting to not release early lists of “national finance committees” or name campaign “co-chairs” of volunteer fundraisers.
Instead, they poured energy into showing voters and small-dollar donors that they prioritized their support ahead of “the 1 percent.” Biden, the former vice president, was the only candidate who took the step of lining up financial staff to court donors in each region of the country ahead of his bid.
But raising money only gets more difficult as campaigns wear on, and candidates can tap out their networks of friends and die-hard supporters after the initial wave of excitement surrounding their campaign launches.
“The second quarter is going to be much harder” for campaigns, said Tom Nides, a Morgan Stanley executive and Democratic fundraiser who was a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Indeed, Warren’s campaign acknowledged after the first quarter of 2019 that its fundraising pace would have to keep accelerating to grow the massive campaign she has already built, which now includes a staff of over 200. Warren raised $6 million in the first three months of the year, $4.2 million of which came from donors giving $200 or less — and she spent more than $5.2 million during that time. (Warren also has a cushion of over $10 million in her campaign coffers that was transferred from her old Senate campaign account.)
O’Rourke, who started his campaign with few connections to wealthy donors outside his home state of Texas, is getting help from a major New York City financier ahead of his Monday fundraiser in the financial capital: Mark Gallogly, a founder of the private investment firm Centerbridge Partners, sent an email ahead of the event urging people to give money to O’Rourke’s campaign.
The minimum contribution to attend is $250, while attendees can garner extra perks for agreeing to raise up to $25,000 for O’Rourke.
Buttigieg, who raised nearly two-thirds of his money from small donors in the first quarter, has leaned into the wealthy donor community as his public profile shot up, frequently appearing at fundraisers and encouraging high-profile supporters to sign onto his events as co-hosts rather than keep their support discreet, as many of his competitors are doing. In recent days, he made stops in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Houston for fundraisers.
Buttigieg will visit Los Angeles again in June and has plans to travel to Boston for a fundraiser hosted by Jack Connors, a philanthropist dubbed by Boston Magazine the “last king of Boston.” To take advantage of his newfound cachet with elite donors, the Buttigieg campaign recently hired two Obama alumni, Zach Allen and Aida Smith, to raise money in New York and Los Angeles.
Warren, who is careful not to violate the fundraising restrictions that she put on her own campaign, is not attracting the throngs of celebrity support that Biden, Buttigieg and Harris have enjoyed so far.
“We get where she’s coming from,” said Hardy, the Hollywood writer and producer. “She doesn’t want to be associated with the traditional ‘Jeffrey Katzenberg has a big thing at his house’ thing,” referring to the film producer who has raised millions of dollars for Democratic candidates and recently co-hosted a Biden fundraiser.
But a small web of volunteer fundraisers like Hardy, nurtured by Warren’s campaign, is taking shape.
Atlanta-based lawyer David Worley, a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee who was vice-chair of John Kerry’s finance committee in 2004, is trying to commit time every day to asking people to give money to Warren’s campaign. Worley said he checks in with Warren’s staff about his efforts.
Worley and others who are volunteering their time said they aren’t bothered by Warren’s stance towards money in politics.
“I understand the positions she’s taken about not wanting to have closed-door fundraisers. That’s perfectly fine with me,” Worley said. “I intend to support her as much as I can.”
Meanwhile, Harris is holding her national finance event at a moment when many top donors are helping more than one candidate for president. But people who attend the Harris retreat will be committing to help the Harris campaign exclusively — a move that will help the campaign lock down support at a time of great uncertainty in the Democratic presidential race.
But there are still plenty of donors who are not bending to pressure to commit to one candidate.
The race will be “a long haul,” said Bay Area donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who has lent her support to Buttigieg, Harris and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee so far. Things are likely to change many times over before a nominee emerges from the crowded race, she added.
“Let’s take it easy here,” Tompkins Buell said. “There’s a lot of pressure to get the money in early, but we don’t know which way the primary is going to go.”