The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the exclusive events helping to fund Clinton and the Democratic Party

The price of entry to see Hillary Clinton on Sunday evening was $50,000 per person, a sum that got you an al fresco meal of tomato and mozzarella salad, lobster, strawberry shortcake and an intimate conversation with the possible next president of the United States.

“It was the easiest event I’ve ever done,” said Elaine Schuster, a longtime Clinton friend who hosted the soiree at her waterfront home on Cape Cod, Mass. “Everyone wanted to come.”

Not everyone could, of course: Just 28 people joined Clinton for cocktails and dinner in Schuster’s back yard. The Democratic nominee has spent much of August in such exclusive environs, helping her campaign and the party scoop up at least $32 million in three weeks as part of a nonstop press of high-dollar fundraisers.

Clinton has touted her growing support from small contributors, whose donations of $200 or less made up nearly 40 percent of her campaign’s $62 million haul in July.

But the former secretary of state devoted much of this month to seeking big money to finance the Democratic Party, a race for cash that has taken her from Greenwich, Conn., to Nantucket, Mass., to Beverly Hills, Calif. The fundraising drive has served as a reminder of her deep and decades-long connections to some of the country’s wealthiest figures, a jarring contrast with her efforts to cast herself as an ally of those left out of prosperity.

Hillary Clinton outlines her vision for the U.S. economy in a speech in Warren, Mich., on Aug. 11. (Video: The Washington Post)

“There is too much inequality, too little upward mobility. It is just too hard to get ahead today,” Clinton said during a major economic speech this month in the blue-collar community of Warren, Mich. If elected, she pledged, “I will have your back every single day that I serve.”

That appeal to working-class voters was bookended by two expensive fundraisers. The night before, Clinton had held a $25,000-a-head event in nearby Birmingham, Mich., at the home of a musician whose father was the owner of basketball’s Detroit Pistons. Legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin provided entertainment for the roughly 70 guests, performing “Natural Woman.”

And on the evening of her speech, donors paid $50,000 apiece to socialize with the candidate at the Chicago Club, one of the city’s most exclusive social gathering places. Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), did his part by appearing at a fundraiser the same day at a Roman-style trattoria in a boutique Manhattan hotel, where admission started at $50,000 as well.

Inside the Clinton Donor Network

The Democratic ticket’s relentless fundraising this month — which included 50 private events through Monday, split roughly in half between the running mates — is helping to drive what is expected to be a record monthly haul for the campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

But the intense pursuit of big money spotlights what has long been one of Clinton's biggest vulnerabilities: her immersion in a wealthy elite circle that has supported her family's political and philanthropic causes over the past four decades. Those relationships were underscored by newly released emails from her time as secretary of state, which showed how the requests of her longtime friends and donors captured the attention of top Clinton aides.

Republican nominee Donald Trump also has devoted much of August to the fundraising circuit, with about two dozen events scheduled in some of the same exclusive enclaves as Clinton's. But he does not have the same kind of long-standing connections to wealthy donors as the former first lady — relationships that have paid dividends as she has sought financing for her second White House run.

The billionaire real estate developer has attacked Clinton as beholden to her benefactors, picking up a critique that Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) made during the Democratic primaries.

“Hillary Clinton’s donors own her,” Trump said at a rally in Akron, Ohio, on Monday night. “They own her lock, stock and barrel. They own her, and she will do whatever they tell her to do.”

It’s an argument that resonates with many Sanders fans, who remain uncomfortable with Clinton’s pursuit of big money.

“Fifty thousand dollars is more than a lot of people make in a year,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, an environmental group that was an early Sanders supporter.

“When you’re taking such big-dollar contributions, ordinary Americans have a right to question what people are getting in return,” he added.

Some Sanders supporters are even more pointed in their criticism, noting that the senator’s low-dollar fundraising juggernaut surpassed Clinton for several months.

“It seems to be 180 degrees opposite of what Bernie talked about,” said Burt Cohen, a former New Hampshire state senator and host of a podcast called “Keeping Democracy Alive.” “It’s more of that strategy of leaving the Bernie people in the dust.”

Clinton officials said that those writing big checks are supplying just a fraction of the campaign's contributions. Of the $62 million Clinton raised for her campaign in July, $44 million was contributed online, they said. Donations of $200 or less totaled more than $24 million, about 38 percent.

Trump also brought in about $24 million in small donations in July, about two-thirds of the $36 million he collected in his campaign committee.

Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin said in a statement that “grassroots support continues to be the lifeblood of this campaign. Hillary Clinton raised nearly 70 percent of her money online in July, with about half of the donations coming from first time donors and the average donation to the campaign for the month was just $44.”

Still, Clinton spent most of August raising huge sums for the national party, which can accept vastly larger contributions than her campaign, as a result of rules being loosened in 2014.

She pulled in at least $1.5 million from 15 guests who attended a dinner in Omaha hosted by Susan Buffett, the daughter of Warren Buffett, a business magnate and investor, according to details released by the campaign.

A few days later, Clinton scooped up at least $750,000 at the home in Bow Mar, Colo., of Charlie Ergen, co-founder of Dish network and reportedly the richest man in the state.

Last weekend, Clinton collected at least $3.8 million in a swing through the toniest oceanfront communities in Massachusetts, headlining five events held by the likes of investor Lynn Forester de Rothschild, former ambassador to Portugal Elizabeth Bagley and former Universal Studios chief executive Frank Biondi.

Then it was off to Southern California, where the candidate spent Monday and Tuesday feted by boldface names such as former basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson at six events Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, she is scheduled to headline three fundraisers in California’s Bay Area, culminating with a dinner in Los Altos hosted by Apple chief executive Tim Cook.

Those who have observed Clinton in these settings say that she takes pains to point out the vast economic chasm that separates the attendees from the majority of Americans.

“She says the same thing at every one of these events as I see on TV,” said Wade Randlett, a longtime Democratic bundler who is raising money for Clinton’s campaign. “The only difference is that she starts by saying that the economy is working for all of us in the room, but it’s not working for too many people and her job is to make it work for everybody.”

Clinton was the first presidential contender this cycle to take advantage of recent changes in campaign finance rules that allow candidates to seek massive contributions in conjunction with the national party.

Political parties go after million-dollar donors in wake of looser rules

By giving to two joint fundraising committees that Clinton’s campaign set up with the DNC, a single donor can contribute as much as $619,200 this year to support her bid. (Trump now has a similar arrangement with the Republican National Committee that allows donors to give up to $449,400.)

A Washington Post analysis of Federal Election Commission filings found that 65 Clinton allies had given at least $300,000 apiece to her joint fundraising committees by the end of June, together accounting for more than $29 million in contributions.

Among them are Univision chairman Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl Saban, who together donated $1.4 million. The Sabans also have contributed $10 million to Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton super PAC.

A Post investigation last year found that the couple ranked as the top political benefactors of Bill and Hillary Clinton's campaigns since 1992 and also had donated at least $10 million to the Clintons' family foundation.

On Monday night, the Sabans opened their Beverly Hills home to their longtime friend, hosting 100 supporters who paid $50,000 each to dine with the candidate.

The next day, Clinton took a brief break from her fundraising schedule to participate in a conference call with small-business owners around the country.

During her remarks, she recalled her upbringing in a family that ran a small drapery business in suburban Chicago, saying, “I want to make sure every family has the chance to tell a similar story. And that’s why my top priority as president will be building an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”

Soon after, she was off — headed to mingle with stars such as Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx and Tobey Maguire at the Hollywood Hills home of pop star Justin Timberlake and his wife, actress Jessica Biel, for yet another fundraiser. This one alone would generate more than $3 million for Clinton and the party.

Jenna Johnson and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.