The team of fundraisers tasked with raising more than $1 billion for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expected presidential bid will start with two major assets: a national grass-roots operation two years in the making and a network of wealthy Democratic donors much broader than the one that backed her first White House run.
But for all those advantages, Clinton and her allies will also be scrambling to catch up with the tens of millions that Republican contender Jeb Bush has been stockpiling in a super PAC set up to back his campaign. A similar vehicle poised to help Clinton has so far struggled to secure commitments.
The dynamic underscores how drastically the fundraising environment has changed since Clinton ran in 2008 — two years before the birth of super PACs. Now, Republican White House hopefuls are working hand in glove with big-money groups, helping them scoop up as much money as possible before they officially announce their candidacies.
Clinton has kept her distance from Priorities USA Action, the super PAC slated to serve as the major outside support for her campaign. That has frustrated some Democratic operatives who say donors have been reluctant to make big pledges to the group until they get a clear signal from the former secretary of state.
The money spigot is expected to open once Clinton announces her candidacy next month. There have been initial discussions about having her and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, take part in fundraising events for the super PAC, say Democrats familiar with the plans.
Without a strong primary challenger, Hillary Clinton will have the luxury of amassing huge sums of money this year while Republicans duke it out in a costly primary fight.
“We will be able to go toe-to-toe with the Republicans,” said Denver lawyer Michael Driver, a longtime Clinton friend who raised money for her Senate and presidential campaigns. “There is tremendous appetite. We all have this abiding belief, professionally and personally, in Secretary Clinton.”
Waiting for her is a database of 3.6 million supporters developed by Ready for Hillary, say officials for the super PAC, which has served as an incubator for activists and donors. In addition, a crop of new party fundraisers — brought into politics through President Obama’s campaigns — have pledged to join Clinton loyalists on what is expected to be a massive national finance committee.
“There are a whole bunch of people who are ready to make history twice,” said Democratic strategist Erik Smith. “I think they’ve got a better fundraising network than anybody in either party in this country, and it will only be improved by all this new blood.”
The outlines of the finance operation for Clinton’s anticipated campaign are just beginning to take shape, led by the expected finance director, Dennis Cheng, who until recently headed fundraising for the Clinton family’s foundation.
Democratic strategists believe that Clinton will need to bring in at least as much as the $1.1 billion that Obama did in 2012 through his campaign and the Democratic National Committee — and likely more.
But until she is the official nominee, Clinton will not be able to raise money in conjunction with the DNC, limiting donations to $5,400 a person.
Clinton will also not be able to seed her new campaign with a major cash infusion as she did in early 2007, when she transferred $10 million from her Senate reelection committee, helping her post a record $36 million haul for her first fundraising quarter. Her 2008 presidential committee is shut down, and her Senate committee has just $158,000 left in reserves.
Many decisions about the fundraising operation remain up in the air, including the exact structure of the national finance committee, according to top Democrats. But Clinton has decided not to have a position of finance chairman, people familiar with the discussions say. That means there will not be a single fundraiser spearheading the efforts, a role Terry McAuliffe, now the governor of Virginia, effectively played as her campaign chairman in 2008. Rather, her aides are discussing how to accommodate hundreds of top-tier party donors and bundlers clamoring for a prime seat at the table.
For all the eagerness among the party’s money players, veteran fundraisers caution that it will take Clinton time to build a far-reaching financial operation.
“The first $100 million is easy,” said one prominent Democrat who has been involved in multiple presidential campaigns. “The next $1 billion is what’s more problematic. It takes real organizational structure. They will need to create infrastructure in cities and states. All of that takes work.”
One of the first tasks will be to create a robust small-donor network modeled after the Obama campaign’s vaunted list, something that Clinton did not initially have in 2008.
This time, her campaign will be able to build on the efforts of Ready for Hillary, which has held more than 1,000 grass-roots events across all 50 states in the past two years. In the process, the group amassed a donor pool of more than 135,000 people, the vast majority of whom gave contributions of $100 or less, according to super-PAC officials. Ready for Hillary also has cultivated a network of local organizers who could sign on for similar roles with the official campaign.
That could give Clinton a sizable head start over some of her Republican rivals in building a small-donor operation. Bush and other top GOP candidates have focused most of their fundraising so far on the party’s major donors. But Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has a national donor list of nearly 300,000 people who have given to his gubernatorial races, while Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have strong followings that could flood their campaigns with small checks.
Ready for Hillary will not be able to coordinate with Clinton once she announces, but it could share its list of supporters with her campaign through a list swap, campaign finance lawyers said.
“What it gives her is a huge base of small donors who have demonstrated their support,” said Craig Smith, a senior adviser to the group. “If people will give us $20.16, hopefully they’ll give the campaign $200.”
The group, which will close shortly after Clinton declares her candidacy, will also post online the names of hundreds of donors who have given or raised more than $5,000, according to a person familiar with the plans. That list — which includes at least 222 donors who gave $25,000 — would be valuable not just for Clinton’s campaign but for Priorities USA, which faces pressure to kick-start its fundraising.
After sitting out the 2014 campaign, the Priorities super PAC thought it could bring in an early haul of tens of millions of dollars once it started seeking donations. But the group’s efforts to secure $1 million pledges this year fell short, according to several people familiar with internal discussions. Reluctant donors — including some who recently wrote big checks to the Clinton foundation — said they wanted to wait for her to announce before making a commitment.
Priorities USA, which is set to hold a conference call with its board members later this month, plans to make a hard press for contributions from former donors and long-standing Clinton friends as soon as she is in the race. DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, a major Clinton ally, is expected to play a prominent role in corralling support.
Still, it will be far behind Right to Rise, the super PAC that was formed in January to back Bush. Fundraising for the group is going so well that advisers have asked supporters to limit their donations to $1 million for now.
The Democratic super-PAC deficit is reminiscent of the situation early in the 2012 contest, when wealthy party donors were initially reluctant to give to Priorities USA. In the end, the group brought in $79 million, but it was vastly outraised by its Republican counterpart.
Party fundraisers said they are confident the checks will come more easily this time.
“I don’t see any issue at all in terms of our ability to raise more than enough money to compete on any level,” said Lou Frillman, a top Democratic donor who served on Obama’s national finance committee. “I just think that people are completely horrified, frankly, by the things that the Republicans come up with. Once the campaign season opens, that will drive what is needed.”
Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.