Big-money liberals vow to back Bernie whether he likes it or not

Big-money liberals vow to back Bernie whether he likes it or not
© Getty Images

Bernie SandersBernie SandersPelosi: 'Of course' Dems can be against abortion Kasich: 'I think political parties are on their way out' Sanders: Democratic Party's model is 'failing' MORE doesn't want a super-PAC, but if the Vermont Senator wins the Democratic nomination, the left's mega-donors are prepared to fund big-money vehicles whether he likes it or not. 

ADVERTISEMENT
In interviews over the past several weeks, Democratic donors, fundraisers and operatives told The Hill that the stakes are so high in this election — with Republicans now threatening to take over all three branches of government — that there is no way the left’s donor class will sit on their checkbooks just because Sanders orders them to do so. 

"It’s going to cost $1 billion to elect the next president,” says Keith Mestrich, who sits on the board of the left’s most powerful donor network, the Democracy Alliance, and runs the Amalgamated Bank, a top lender to progressive groups and the Democratic Party.  

“The establishment is going to do everything they can to make sure that the Democratic nominee wins the general election,” Mestrich added in an interview in his Washington office. “There will be avenues that will be created to put money into [Sanders’s] campaign.” 

“It might be super-PACs. It might be [501(c)(4)s, social welfare non-profits that can hide identities of donors] … but people are going to figure out ways.” 

A number of Hillary Clinton’s fundraisers and donors say that no matter how impressive Sanders’s small-dollar fundraising is — and many are stunned that he has managed to haul in close to $100 million in donations averaging around $30 — they remain skeptical that the small-dollar approach can work in a general election against a Republican nominee backed by numerous tycoons and likely by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch's powerful donor network.  

Democrats will “go to extremes to make sure that we win and don’t give Republicans a chance to take over the presidency,” says Philadelphia real estate investor Mel Heifetz, a Democratic mega-donor who gave $1 million to President Obama’s super-PAC in 2012 and is now supporting Clinton.  

“People will put up the money,” Heifetz said, adding that even though he has chosen to back Clinton in the primary, in a general election he would write a $100,000-plus check to a pro-Sanders vehicle if asked, regardless of whether Sanders solicited the super-PAC support. 

Already, Sanders is being supported by super-PACs despite his condemnation of them in every stump speech and every debate with Clinton. 

But the unaligned groups backing Sanders are different to the tacitly endorsed groups backing Clinton and all the Republican candidates (with the exception of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDems: Trump’s first 100 days full of broken promises to middle class Judd Gregg: Trump gets his sea legs Week ahead: US raises pressure on WikiLeaks MORE), who have independent groups run by their top allies. The main super-PAC supporting Sanders — a national nurses union — has already spent more than $1 million on Sanders’s behalf, and progressive donors would step up significantly in the event of Sanders winning the nomination. 

There would be limits, however, to Sanders’s appeal to the business wing of the Democratic Party’s donor community because of his constant bashing of Wall Street and large corporations. 

Longtime Clinton fundraiser Bill Brandt, an Illinois-based businessman, said, “I know a lot of the centrist money people who look at [the prospect of Sanders’s nomination] and say that rather than put their money down a rat hole, they’d just focus instead on state or Senate races."

“I would probably not run to Bernie’s side,” Brandt added. “If the party wants to engage in self-immolation … I have other things to spend my money on … Don Quixote is not where I am.” 

But even Brandt, who refuses to believe that Sanders has a chance at becoming the Democratic nominee — acknowledges that there are enough mega-donors on the left to fund super-PACs that would inevitably arise to support the Vermont senator if he were to win the nomination. 

Those close to Sanders say the candidate is likely to forcefully disown any corporate-funded super-PAC that arises on his behalf.  

Privately, Sanders has already resisted advice from friends and informal consultants to tacitly endorse the formation of big-money independent groups that would support him. 

After speaking to Sanders in his Senate office in early 2014 about the possibility of him running for president, Bill Press, a progressive talk show host and columnist for The Hill, suggested that he should meet with a few experienced campaign strategists.

At the behest of Sanders, Press pulled together such a group, and at a private dinner, held on April 9, 2014, in Press’s Capitol Hill row house, Sanders listened to campaign funding advice from about a dozen Democratic operatives and advisers, Press said. 

Over a meal of beef bourguignon cooked by Press’s wife Carol, Democratic consultants advised Sanders that if he was going to run, he would need a well-funded super-PAC to run a competitive campaign.  

Sanders did a lot of listening, and no conclusive decisions were made, Press said, though it was apparent to him and another source at the table that the Vermont Senator believed it hypocritical to run against a corrupt campaign finance system while simultaneously benefiting from the support of a billionaire-funded super-PAC. 

Another key supporter who urged Sanders’ advisers to set up a super-PAC — and was prepared to write large checks to such a group — was Ben & Jerry’s ice cream co-founder Ben Cohen. 

Cohen says he initially believed that Sanders needed to play by the current rules — which means endorsing a big-money super-PAC as President Obama reluctantly did in 2012 — and then change the system after getting elected. 

But Cohen now admits, “Bernie was right, and I was wrong.”

“I was contacted by other people who wanted to raise big bucks for Bernie,” Cohen told The Hill in a telephone interview. 

“Wealthy, wealthy individuals who really support him … people who are well-connected with Hollywood and the progressive business community” wanted to hold big-ticket fundraisers for Sanders when his campaign was still in its early stages in 2015, Cohen added.

“I think it never even crossed his mind [to accept super-PAC money].” 

Sanders’s senior adviser, Tad Devine, an architect of the Sanders campaign who attended two early planning dinners held in 2014 at Press’s house, believes that, ironically, Sanders would have less money behind him if he also had a super-PAC.  

Having a super-PAC would not allow the Sanders team to include perhaps the most motivating message of the campaign, which sits at the bottom of every fundraising email: “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires).”   

“It’s hard to talk out of both sides of your mouth,” Devine said of the notion of simultaneously criticizing super-PACs and accepting money from them. “For Bernie, it was a pretty easy decision." 

In January the Sanders campaign shocked the Democratic establishment when it raised $20 million to the Clinton campaign’s $15 million. By the Sanders campaign’s accounting, the momentum has only accelerated since then, boosted by his overwhelming victory in the New Hampshire primary. 

But as remarkable as Sanders’s small-dollar drive has been, he has still not convinced many longtime Democratic donors and fundraisers that his revolution could raise the funds needed in a general election. 

One of Clinton’s biggest super-PAC donors told The Hill that Sanders’s fundraising might see him through the early stages of a primary campaign, but if he makes it to the general it will be a heavy — and many donors think, impossible — lift to raise more than $1 billion through $30 donations.

Even Larry Lessig, the former Democratic presidential candidate who ran a single-issue campaign to overhaul the campaign finance system, believes Sanders would be severely outspent in a general election without a super-PAC. 

“He’s not going to raise an equivalent amount of money to what the super-PACs will spend,” the Harvard law professorsaid. 

“As much as the progressive base is excited about Bernie’s small dollars, the rest are terrified” that he will be unable to defend himself against an avalanche of super-PAC funded attack ads. 

“I am sure people will step in.”