Democrats are calling on the same donors, but few are ready to spend

The Democrats plotting presidential campaigns have relied on a lot of the same people to fund their political careers. So far, those whales aren’t ready to pick a 2020 favorite.

According to a McClatchy analysis of campaign finance data, the Democrats vying to take on President Donald Trump have hundreds of donors in common. Indeed, more than 1,500 donors have at some point thrown cash to three or more of the current or prospective Democratic contenders -- collectively giving more than $9 million to their campaigns and committees.

This collection of donors has already been fielding phone calls and emails from multiple campaigns. But in a crowded and fluid field, many are keeping their checkbooks closed for the time being, waiting to see which candidates separate themselves from the pack before deciding who to support in 2020.

“I’m in wait-and-see mode,” said Victor Kovner, a New York attorney and longtime Democratic donor. “There are plenty of candidates I’m perfectly happy with, but I want to support the person with the best chance of defeating President Trump.”

No Democratic presidential contender took in more money from this group of donors than New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who collected $2 million over the course of her political career. But Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was supported by the largest number of donors, more than half of whom contributed to her campaigns. (Donors to the Barack Obama-Joe Biden presidential ticket were not attributed to Biden for this analysis.)

Warren also shared the most donors in common with other candidates, having received donations from more than 200 donors who also gave to fellow Sens. Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders and Gillibrand.

The group of donors includes a mix of big names, such as singers Barbra Streisand and Nancy Sinatra. There is also J.J. Abrams, who is directing the latest installment of the Star Wars series, and Adam McKay, who directed Anchorman. And there are numerous billionaires, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, real estate developer Eli Broad and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Jill Iscol, a New York-based philanthropist who has given more than $50,000 combined to prospective 2020 candidates and is a close friend of Hillary Clinton, said that while she’s excited by the array of women who have announced their candidacies, she’s not yet ready to commit.

“For now, I am keeping my powder dry,” she said.

Michael Kelly, a San Francisco attorney who’s contributed to five of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, hasn’t decided who to support either. But he said that he thinks some of the more liberal candidates such as Sanders and Warren wouldn’t be able to beat Trump, and that he would like to see the party nominate a younger candidate.

“I don’t have a horse in the race,” said Kelly. “The most important thing is finding someone who has sufficient national appeal to get elected.”

As for Kovner, who sits on the board of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, his priority at the outset of the cycle will be on aiding down-ballot Democrats, particularly those who just won competitive races in 2018.

“I’m concerned Democrats are too focused on the presidential primary and will give insufficient attention to House and Senate candidates,” Kovner said. “The presidential race may well take care of itself.”

Meanwhile, billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who briefly toyed with entering the race himself, is more focused on his campaign to impeach Trump. He’s said recently that he will use support for impeachment as a litmus test in determining which candidate to back in 2020.

With all the overlap among donors bases, the key for campaigns will be to identify new sources of money, said Rufus Gifford, who was a California fundraiser for Barack Obama in 2008 before overseeing the entire fundraising operation for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. In Obama’s first election, Gifford and other fundraisers sought out new donors who weren’t already backing backing Clinton.

“They were younger, they were more diverse, they were new to the process,” Gifford said of these Obama backers. “If I were helping these candidates that’s what I would advise them.”

Rather than sit out the first few months of the race, some donors will spread their money around. New York private equity investor Jay Snyder, who’s donated to eight of the Democratic contenders in the past, said he will likely donate to multiple candidates in the beginning stages of the race. After supporting Clinton early in the 2008 and 2016 races, Snyder said he’s in no rush to pick just one candidate this time around.

“Each election cycle is different,” Snyder said. “It’s going to be a very long race, maybe the longest I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve been at this a while.”

But a few are jumping on board with a candidate early. Douglas Goldman, a San Francisco philanthropist who has contributed to five Democratic contenders, said that after speaking with Harris over the phone about a month ago, he decided to throw his support behind his home-state senator. Goldman said he agreed to bundle contributions for the Harris campaign, a role he also played for Barack Obama, and that he plans to hold a fundraiser soon.

Even as Democratic candidates such as Harris are refusing corporate PAC money, shunning super PACs and actively soliciting small-dollar contributions, they are still courting donors who can write big checks and tap into their expansive networks for the cash needed to run an expensive presidential campaign.

“‘Bundler’ has become kind of an ugly word, but these candidates need to raise an ungodly amount of money and they can’t do it all themselves and their paid staff can’t do it all themselves,” Goldman said.

Gifford, the Obama fundraiser who himself ran for Congress in 2018, said that bundlers and big-dollar donors will still have an important role in the 2020 race -- once they decide who support.

“Small-dollar donors are going to fuel you for your launch, but then you’ve got all of 2019 where small dollar donors are not going to support you,” Gifford said. “Maybe they’re less relevant than ever, but I believe that major donors do still matter to get through the dark days of the campaign.”

Adam Wollner is a political editor for McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covers the 2020 presidential campaign. Previously, he covered elections and Capitol Hill for National Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ben Wieder is a data reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.