Democratic presidential candidates have a money problem: They need to raise a ton of it while simultaneously proving their distance from big donors — and most candidates can’t do both at once.
The candidates are eager to please voters and potential small-dollar donors who want to see less big money in politics. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the only declared Democratic candidate with a super PAC actively backing him so far, faced swift criticism for not rejecting big-money groups when he leapt into the race.
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Big money has never been so toxic in national politics, with President Donald Trump using it as a foil in his upstart 2016 campaign and Democrats running against it when they took back the House in 2018. But few candidates can attract hundreds of thousands of online donors and free themselves from soliciting big checks at this point, the way Sen. Bernie Sanders did at his campaign kickoff, even as 2020 Democrats swear off some types of major donors in an effort to make themselves more appealing to the grassroots.
To address the conundrum, most candidates are imposing limits on how their own campaigns raise funds — refusing money from corporate PACs, for instance, and in some cases saying they don’t want super PAC support — to prove their anti-corruption bona fides, while also seeking out support from big donors behind the scenes. Most Democratic candidates are regularly attending high-dollar fundraisers in between campaign rallies and congressional votes, and there’s intense but covert competition among them to lock in major donors’ support ahead of rivals.
“There is a desire to be purer than the next guy” during the Democratic primary, said one aide to a presidential campaign. Yet while candidates can put limits on their own fundraising to try to leverage an advantage with small-dollar supporters, few are in a position to turn down traditional big-dollar fundraising strategies, said Ami Copeland, who was a deputy finance director for former President Barack Obama.
“The Inslee super PAC: Why does somebody need that? Because nobody knows his name,” Copeland said. “You can’t run a campaign based on a super PAC, but a super PAC can be used to jump start a campaign and build in people’s minds and go from there.”
Two candidates, Sanders and fellow Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are planning to lean heavily on online donors during the primary, while others are cultivating a mix of digital and big-ticket contributors.
But operatives working for rival campaigns rolled their eyes Warren’s recent restrictions on her own fundraising, which include not raising money at exclusive closed-door fundraisers, saying it was a ploy to play down expectations for her fundraising that she otherwise wouldn’t have taken on.
“It seems very stunt-y, to lower expectations, and it seems like they layered a ton of caveats in,” said a second Democratic presidential campaign aide.
While all of the leading presidential campaigns have banned corporate PAC money, for example, 2020 Democrats continue to raise money from wealthy donors who work for a range of industries, and closed-door fundraisers are proceeding as they would during any other election cycle, donors and fundraisers told POLITICO.
“Our money is not corporate PAC money — it’s individuals writing checks,” said one Democratic fundraiser.
Joe Biden, who is deliberating a run for president, would be the latest candidate to try to raise big- and small-dollar contributions, his early steps towards the race show. The former vice president, who is better-known to Democratic donors than perhaps any other candidate, has spoken about a run with major contributors such as Philadelphia philanthropist Mel Heifetz, who contributed more than $1 million backing Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Denise Bauer, who was ambassador to Belgium under Obama.
But in a sign of how much even a known figure such as Biden is eager for support from small-dollar donors, the former vice president also put half a million dollars last cycle into building up a presence online through his PAC, American Possibilities.
Indeed, candidates with ties to wealthy and influential supporters are facing increasing public scrutiny for those bonds. The day of Warren’s announcement about her fundraising restrictions, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was questioned on Fox News over attending an upcoming New York fundraiser hosted by Sally Susman, executive vice president at the drug company Pfizer.
Susman is “a dear friend who I’ve known for years and years who believes in my gay rights platform and believes in women’s rights and women’s equality,” Gillibrand said on Fox News. “What’s wrong with Washington is there’s so much corruption and so much greed.”
“That’s why I’m banning federal lobbyist money, it’s why I’m banning super PAC money, why I’m not having an individual super PAC, and why I’m banning corporate PAC checks,” Gillibrand said. But “of course” she was going to proceed with the event, where ticket prices ran up to $2,700 per person.
For lesser-known candidates like Inslee, a super PAC may offer an opportunity to break out of the pack from other candidates. But it comes at a cost. The campaign finance reform group End Citizens United asked Inslee to publicly disavow Act Now on Climate, the super PAC formed to back Inslee, and said the group “serves as a shadow support to your campaign.”
Act Now on Climate spent $1 million on a recent ad buy in Iowa. When asked about the PAC, Inslee said he would not speak against it because of its climate change work. Sen. Cory Booker also has a super PAC supporting his bid, but has said he does not want super PAC support.
“They want to fight climate change,” Inslee said on CNN’s New Day when asked about the group. “I’m not going to speak against them or condemn them by wanting to fight climate change. This is something we’d all be involved in.”