Democratic presidential contenders send cash to critical 2020 states

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks to demonstrators as they protest against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 4.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks to demonstrators as they protest against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 4. AP

The final votes of the 2018 midterms have yet to be cast, but several Democratic presidential hopefuls have already been spending with the next campaign in mind.

The campaigns and committees associated with nearly two-dozen prospective 2020 Democratic contenders have collectively spent more than $1.3 million on contributions, travel and voter lists in the four early-voting states, according to a McClatchy review of financial records.

Ostensibly, much of that money has landed in the coffers of state and local parties and candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to help their 2018 campaign efforts. But for ambitious Democrats, it’s a critical step in forming alliances and friendships that could be useful to them in a presidential campaign that will begin in earnest after Tuesday’s elections.

“People know who helps in them in previous elections and who doesn’t,” said Gene Martin, the chair of the Manchester, N.H., Democratic Party. “If you’re interested in helping out yourself, you need to help others.”

No one has done that more from a financial perspective than Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti through his Democratic Midterm Victory Fund. While presidential hopefuls typically set up leadership PACs to start collecting chits, Garcetti formed a group that is a hybrid between a super PAC and a more traditional PAC, meaning it can raise unlimited sums of money.

Garcetti’s group contributed $100,000 apiece to the Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina Democratic parties, an amount that turned heads among Democratic activists and leaders. It also donated another $20,000 to candidates and groups in those states.

“For those who give real help, and that is financial help, a large swath of us in South Carolina Democratic politics … will return the favor,” said Boyd Brown, a South Carolina Democratic operative and former member of the Democratic National Committee. “That’s how politics works.”

After Garcetti, Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who launched his presidential bid in the summer of 2017, has poured the most money into the early states. His campaign bought $270,000 worth of voter files from groups and candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. His campaign only directly contributed $11,000 though, while spending $33,000 on travel.

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee has been one of the top spending PACs overall during the midterm elections, and has given more than $130,000 directly to political groups in the four states, along with more than $30,000 spent on travel and $600 on voter files.

With such a large field of potential candidates, early-state Democrats are seeing even more money pour in than usual at this point in the cycle, which is serving as a boon to their midterm efforts.

“The amount of money being spent this election is amazing,” said Bret Nilles, the chair of the Linn County Democratic Party in Iowa. “The big field of candidates helps in terms of financial support, but also helps in terms of bringing in other people that otherwise wouldn’t be involved.”

Democrats aren’t the only ones making early money moves. President Donald Trump is already raising funds for his re-election campaign, the earliest any sitting president has done in decades, and as independent groups are spending millions to promote his 2020 campaign.

But the jockeying among Democrats hoping to take on Trump is only in the early stages.

One of Trump’s most vocal critics, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has spent the most of any senator in the early states, doling out more than $65,000 in contributions between her leadership PAC and campaign committee.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell’s leadership PAC has given out just north of $50,000 in donations to political committees and candidates in the four states. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley’s committees have written more than $45,000 in checks to early-state groups, while New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand committees have given $35,000.

Notably, the spending of two 2016 presidential candidates considering another run -- former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- is down compared to the last cycle. O’Malley contributed more than $110,000 to candidates and groups in the early states in 2014, compared to less than $20,000 in 2018. Sanders’ donations dropped from $40,000 to $1,000

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have all contributed around $30,000 to early-state candidates and groups. California Sen. Kamala Harris has pitched in $20,000, compared to $10,000 from fellow Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Fellow Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Chris Murphy and Connecticut also gave roughly $10,000 each, as did former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro gave $8,000 in contributions, while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg doled out less than $5,000.

With so many potential contenders already focusing on the early states, local Democrats say it’s even more important than usual to establish an early edge.

“There are 30-plus candidates considering running,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley. “How many of them will be running in a year from now will be dependent on the relationships they created.”

Adam Wollner: 202-383-6020, @AdamWollner
Ben Wieder: 202-383-6125, @benbwieder