Democrats preparing presidential runs in 2020 are waging aggressive fundraising campaigns this year, meeting with wealthy donors over private meals and spending millions of dollars to build up their online donor networks.
The early jockeying reflects concern that the sheer number of interested candidates will create a fundraising bottleneck in early 2019, possibly narrowing the field before the first debate for those candidates who can’t raise enough money to continue.
More than two dozen people are in the process of exploring campaigns to take out President Trump, but only a handful have the relationships with wealthy donors, significant personal wealth or small-dollar fundraising apparatus to raise the early money needed to mount a traditional campaign. The early advantage goes to those who hail from wealthy states, with broad networks of donors, such as California and New York, and those who will start the race with a national brand and large email lists of supporters.
Strategists say anyone seeking to challenge Trump will be expected to raise millions of dollars by the first federal fundraising deadline of March 31, 2019 — in checks that are likely to be capped by federal rules at no more than $2,800 each.
“I would say you have to have a path to raising at least $15 [million] or $20 million in that first quarter,” said Julianna Smoot, a Democratic consultant who oversaw then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 fundraising effort. “And I think there may be four or five who will be able to do that.”
That presents an acute threat for candidates who have not established national fundraising operations, an advantage that would be held by two potential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden, both veterans of previous presidential campaigns.
For the first time since 2004, there is no established insider front-runner, like Hillary Clinton before the 2008 and 2016 races, and Barack Obama before his 2012 reelection. And few of the top Democratic donors have committed publicly to any particular candidate, as the party remains focused on the midterm elections.
“I think everyone is up for grabs. There is no gravitational pull just yet,” said Tom Nides, a Democratic fundraiser and vice chairman at Morgan Stanley. “No one has caught the imagination of those folks at this point.”
The void has forced many of the prospective candidates to seek an alternative path by spending heavily to build up online networks of supporters who are inclined to give checks of $200 or less. The method of choice for building up small-dollar networks has been online advertising, primarily on social networks such as Facebook.
The ads, which carry soft asks like “add your name” and “say ‘enough is enough,’ ” are blitzed out across the country weekly by several Democratic senators considering campaigns, including Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon).
“If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that we are stronger when we raise our voices together,” said one Facebook fundraising ad by Harris that started running on July 24.
Harris does not face Senate reelection until 2022, but she has become one of the most aggressive online fundraisers this year, after spending more than $1.8 million on two Web advertising firms since the start of 2017, according to Federal Election Commission reports. In the second quarter of this year, she reported raising $926,835 in contributions under $200, the usual level returned because of email pleas. Her aides say she has expanded her email list to more than 1 million after a 2016 election in which she relied on more traditional fundraising.
Aides say Harris’s effort to build the list began immediately after Trump won, when a speech Harris gave on election night went viral.
“You were getting not just active sign-ups to the list but you were getting people who wanted to take immediate action,” said Sean Clegg, a Harris strategist, adding that the list efforts have more than paid for themselves. “For every dollar you were investing, you were getting seven fish in the net.”
Presidential aspirants have also used the Facebook ad campaigns as virtual focus groups, where they can try out different messages with different populations to see which ones generate the best response from Democrats.
“This is part of the iterative process of finding out if there is a community for you,” said one adviser to a senator exploring a possible run, who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “You want to grow followers but you also want to grow lists of people who are engaged, who care and may be supportive financially.”
Warren, who has paid more than $1.5 million since the start of 2017 to her Web advertising consultant, raised $1.2 million in the second quarter from donations of less than $200. Unlike Harris, Warren is running for reelection this fall, but is widely favored to win that race easily, allowing her to accumulate money — she has nearly $16 million in cash on hand — and hire staff who could transition to a presidential campaign next year.
The political committees of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have also tried to build lists with Facebook ads, while at the same time the candidates have traveled the country undertaking other fundraising efforts.
Unlike others, Garcetti has created a hybrid committee structure, which can accept checks of unlimited size, including a $50,000 check in February that Garcetti’s staff says came from John Fish, the chief executive of Boston-based Suffolk Construction, who also gave $500,000 last year to help Democratic Senate candidates. Garcetti recently raised $100,000 for the South Carolina Democratic Party and has pledged to raise similar amounts for the state parties of other early presidential voting states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Not all of the potential candidates have been as ambitious. Biden founded an organization, American Possibilities, to support Democratic efforts in the midterms, and he has given away more than $141,000 to other candidates, according to filings. He has not yet started an aggressive advertising campaign to build his new email list, although he has had some meetings with bigger donors who have pledged their support if he runs, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Unlike with other candidates, a Biden presidential campaign would have access to the massive 2012 Obama campaign email list, since he ran on the ticket, though Democratic consultants say the fundraising value of such lists deteriorates over time.
Sanders also controls one of the most valuable email lists in politics, which he built up during his 2016 presidential campaign. Since the start of 2017, he has used it to raise more than $5.3 million in small donations, despite sending emails no more than once a week. He has also raised $1.7 million this cycle for other candidates and causes, including an effort for Warren’s Senate campaign, according to an adviser.
Others such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have opted so far to pass on any list-building activity completely. He has chosen instead to travel the country to meet privately with Democratic leaders and donors at informal private salons that have sprung up around the country.
“He is being invited into a lot of high-dollar Democratic donor circles, to lunch and dinner, in New York, Boston and D.C.,” said an adviser to the governor, who asked for anonymity to discuss the off-the-record events.
Hickenlooper, who has been vacationing this month in the first primary state of New Hampshire, has been pitching himself as an entrepreneur politician with a record of rising above partisan divisions to get results for his Western state.
One Democratic donor and longtime party supporter familiar with early 2020 efforts said while he had not been approached by campaigns, some Democratic 2020 hopefuls have been traveling to New York to meet with potential supporters over coffee or to hold small group meetings with business leaders.
“It’s not an overt thing, but they have a certain resonance and they’re also getting in front of voters” by stumping and fundraising for 2018 Senate candidates, the donor said.
Others such as Bullock, who currently serves as chair of the National Governors Association, have had some success in getting early commitments if they launch a campaign.
Gerald Acker, a trial lawyer in Detroit who served on the national finance committee of Obama’s and John F. Kerry’s presidential campaigns, met with the Montana governor earlier this year, and offered his commitment, as long as Biden decides not to run.
He said he was won over, in a private meeting, by Bullock’s vision of lowering the temperature on national politics. “He’s just different. He’s a good guy,” Acker said of Bullock. “I’m tired of all the yelling. I’m sick to death of it.”
Most veteran donors and fundraisers say there is still plenty of time to decide on a candidate.
“They are going to wait to see how the wind blows in the midterms,” said Mark Buell, a prominent Democratic donor in the San Francisco Bay area. “If the Democrats do well and win the midterms, people are going to smell blood.”
Michelle Lee contributed to this report.