With her debut on the 2016 fundraising circuit this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton is seeking to send a clear message: The biggest donors don’t come first.
A ticket to one of Clinton’s events in Washington, San Francisco or Beverly Hills is $2,700 — a striking contrast with the $100,000-a-head affairs that former Florida governor Jeb Bush has been headlining.
The approach is in keeping with the Clinton campaign’s low-to-the-ground approach, allowing Clinton to separate her fundraising from the wooing of mega-donors preoccupying much of the GOP presidential field.
But even as Clinton focuses on smaller-dollar events, an effort to raise massive sums for her allied super PAC is whirring to life in the background. Top officials with Priorities USA Action have hit the road during the past three weeks, pressing donors for seven-figure contributions and laying the groundwork for an effort they hope will bring in tens of millions.
“We’ve started on the Priorities side,” said Andy Spahn, a political adviser to top Hollywood players including DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the driving forces behind the super PAC. “Calls are being made, and we will have a more aggressive program moving forward.”
It remains to be seen how much Clinton will engage with the independent operation. While she and former president Bill Clinton are expected to headline fundraisers for Priorities USA, she is not doing any events for the group on her initial tour. And top Democratic donors are waiting for a clear signal that she wants them to mobilize around the super PAC.
How the former secretary of state handles the big-money group will test Clinton’s ability to balance her calls for reining in “unaccountable money” with the demands of a campaign finance system that has undergone a revolution since she last ran in 2008.
For now, Clinton and her team are focused on bringing in $100 million by the end of the year for the primary contest — a relatively modest start for an operation expected to raise more than $1 billion. The campaign has also set a low bar for its initial tier of bundlers, known as Hillstarters, who are being asked to raise $27,000 each. And officials are urging supporters to recruit new contributors to give online.
The emphasis on a broad donor base comes as Clinton’s family foundation has come under scrutiny for its acceptance of millions from a network of powerful individuals and global conglomerates, many with business interests before the U.S. government. A delegation of top foundation donors, including major supporters of Clinton’s past campaigns, are accompanying Bill Clinton on a nine-day trip to Africa.
Clinton’s approach to 2016 fundraising diverges from those of many of her GOP rivals, who are already working hand-in-glove with their allied super PACs. According to people familiar with her sentiments, she has been astounded in particular by the boldness of Bush’s operation, which is focused on raising a fortune for his super PAC while maintaining he is not yet a candidate.
“She personally is stunned at what Bush is doing,” said one top Democrat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. A Clinton campaign spokesman declined to comment.
Clinton’s concerns about Bush’s massive fundraising haul prompted her campaign to speed up its original fundraising timeline, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Instead of waiting until May, she kicked off her first finance events in New York Tuesday and is set to do two more events in Washington Thursday, followed by a three-day swing through California next week.
One of the central planks of Clinton’s bid is restructuring the free-wheeling campaign finance system that has taken hold after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on independent political efforts.
“We need to get this corporate and unchecked money out of politics, even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” she said in New Hampshire last week.
But Clinton will still need to lean on a well-funded super PAC to compete against the eventual GOP nominee. That was one of the lessons learned in 2012 by President Obama, who at first resisted the independent effort but ultimately sanctioned it after his strategists convinced him that they would otherwise be massively outspent.
That group, Priorities USA, was essentially inherited by Clinton and is viewed with wariness by some of her advisers. It is co-chaired by Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D).
As soon as Clinton announced she was running, Priorities USA executive director Buffy Wicks and other top super PAC officials hit the road to solicit checks in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Some Democratic donors have already made sizable contributions, galvanized by the ballooning war chests on the right.
“There certainly is complete recognition by the blue donor network that we have got to be competitive with the giving that is going to flow around all the Republican candidates,” said Lou Frillman, a top party contributor who said he has already made a major pledge to Priorities USA.
Still, some veteran party fundraisers said donors need to be assured that the super PAC is viewed as an integral part of the 2016 effort before they will step up in a big way.
Clinton herself does not have to convey the message, Spahn said. But he said: “It’s important for the community to recognize that beyond writing your $2,700 [check], the best way to help is support the world of Priorities USA.”
There appears to be no lack of enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy among party financiers. Her five fundraising events next week in California — hosted by former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell, entertainment mogul Haim Saban, eBay chief executive John Donahoe and television producers Steven Bochco and Howard Gordon, among others — are expected to be at full capacity.
Bundlers said their only challenge has been trying to sign up donors who haven’t already contributed the maximum.
“I couldn’t think of a single person I could raise money from who hadn’t already given,” said Lara Bergthold, a longtime Hollywood fundraiser at Rally, a communications and issue advocacy firm. She said the response has been enormous from longtime Clinton supporters and newer donors who backed Obama during his two White House runs. “I’m seeing all of those networks activated,” Bergthold said.
Still, Clinton’s top campaign staff, including Chairman John Podesta and campaign manager Robby Mook, are taking nothing for granted, holding small briefings on fundraising and outreach strategy for supporters likely to become major donors.
Political director Amanda Renteria, Mook deputy Marlon Marshall, finance director Dennis Cheng and longtime Clinton policy adviser Jake Sullivan are also taking part in sessions dubbed the “road show.” The campaign plans to hold 30 such briefings across the country, including in states Clinton is not expected to visit for months.
Invitees, which include former donors to the Clinton and Obama campaigns, have been assured that she can reassemble the key constituencies that made up Obama’s winning coalition in 2008: Hispanics, African Americans, young people and women.
At one such session last week at the Washington home of longtime Clinton friends Vernon and Ann Jordan, Mook and Podesta told backers that the initial slow pace of fundraising is by design, reflecting Clinton’s plan for a measured entry into the full-time campaign.
The presentations include several slides that compare Clinton’s fundraising potential to the record-setting haul of Obama’s 2012 race, emphasizing that Clinton is initially working with a smaller universe of potential cash, a campaign official said.
Because the Clinton campaign is actively raising money just for the primary election, it is relying on donations of up to $2,700 a person. In early 2011, Obama was able solicit donations of $38,500 for his reelection because he was raising money in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee.
Attendees are encouraged to recruit others at the $2,700 level and told how to evangelize for online donations in smaller amounts. The goal is to broaden the donor base and avoid the appearance that an exclusive club of super-rich can wield outsize influence, Democrats familiar with the strategy said.
Online fundraising is going as expected, one campaign official said, given that the e-mail contact list Clinton is working from is about a fifth the size of the one Obama last used.
The Clinton campaign had been expected to quickly make use of the extensive e-mail list of small-dollar supporters compiled by the pre-campaign booster group Ready For Hillary. That list has not yet been sold or otherwise conveyed to the campaign.
Rosalind Helderman contributed to this report.