Big Dem donors stick to sidelines as 2020 approaches

Big Dem donors stick to sidelines as 2020 approaches

Major Democratic donors are not committing to prospective 2020 candidates, a break from past presidential cycles when fundraisers lined up behind candidates even before their races officially began. 

The Democratic primary is expected to kick into a higher gear after November’s midterm elections, and there is already plenty of activity, including trips to Iowa by Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' Democrats' reconciliation bill breaks Biden's middle class tax pledge We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE’s (D-Mass.) high-profile release of a DNA test. 

Yet many donors, for now, say they’re in no rush to commit to candidates, even as they say they are fielding calls asking for support. 


There are several reasons for the noncommittal attitudes, say more than half a dozen Democratic fundraisers and bundlers interviewed by The Hill.

For starters, much of the focus and energy is on the midterms — perhaps the most highly anticipated congressional elections in recent history.

“I think anybody not focusing on 2018 is missing the boat,” said Jon Vein, a prominent Democratic donor who was an early supporter of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE and has thrown much of his weight into trying to flip the House. Vein has not committed to a presidential candidate so far. 

Then there are the big-name donors who might have thoughts about running for the White House themselves.

Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist and donor, has raised attention for his efforts to gain support for a petition calling for President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE's impeachment. It's led to speculation that he might run for president himself in 2020.

Steyer could also be a huge ally for whichever candidate he chooses to support, if he stays out of the primary. And at this point he said he's not entertaining any talk of 2020 from any would-be candidates.

"At this point, it's inappropriate," Steyer said in an interview on Sunday. "If someone came to me and wanted to talk about [2020] I would say, 'You know what? I have no time for that.' I'm not going to even entertain that conversation. By and large people would be reluctant to be open about it because people like me would say 'not interested.'" 

Steyer is focused on his petition and helping Democrats across the board win in the midterms, he said.

"Flipping the House is a minimum in terms of a successful year," he said. 

The lack of donor commitments also speaks to the wide-open nature of the race, which seems likely to include more than two dozen prospective candidates. 

It’s different from 2012, when President Obama was running for reelection, and 2016, when Clinton scared away some contenders. It’s also different from 2008, when some donors gravitated to either Clinton or Obama.

The slow build is a good thing for the party coming after 2016’s failure, say several Democrats. 

“Historically, we Democrats do not do front-runners well,” said Robert Zimmerman, another top-name donor who got behind Clinton both in 2008 and 2016 before she even declared she was running for president. 

“Anyone ahead now becomes a target,” added Zimmerman. “So there is a general consensus and a sigh of relief that there is not a front-runner at this point. There is plenty of time to go through group therapy about the 2020 field.”

Zimmerman attended an event last year in the Hamptons for Harris and has had conversations with other would-be candidates, but he has yet to pick a Democratic candidate to back in 2020. 

Robert Wolf, the former CEO of UBS who got behind Obama early during his 2008 bid and was a bundler for the former president’s campaigns, agreed.

“A coronation as opposed to a primary doesn’t help our party,” Wolf, who hasn’t picked a candidate for 2020 yet, said in an interview. “We learned that the front-runner doesn’t always win.”

Other donors and fundraisers say with so many potential faces in the race, they need to see how the line-up shapes up before committing to the right candidate. 

For now, they're watching Warren’s DNA release with interest, along with the performances by Harris and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-N.J.) at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughLocked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment Why Latinos need Supreme Court reform Feehery: A Republican Congress is needed to fight left's slide to autocracy MORE

“I’m not signing up with anyone for a long time,” said one major Obama bundler, who added that would-be contenders will need to “shake out their support.”

“They’ve got a lot of proving to do, all of them,” the bundler said. 

It’s a far cry from 2016. That year, when then-Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE was weighing entering the race as Clinton struggled with the controversy surrounding her private email server, he was told that many donors, including Wolf, were already committed to Clinton. 

“I think this is the first time in a long time where [donors] don't know who to support and they truly don't know who is going to get in,” said Adam Parkhomenko, who co-founded the Ready for Hillary super PAC in 2013 and saw donors rally around Clinton a couple of years before she formally announced. 

There’s plenty of communication between prospective presidential candidates in the Democratic field and the donor class. 

This includes introductory conversations and strategic phone calls, but for the most part isn’t venturing into requests for support. 

A couple of donors said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been a little more forward about his intentions — giving donors his contact information and promising to stay in touch. 

But most are avoiding any such conversations. 

“They’re not being explicit and they shouldn’t be,” Vein said. 

In the days and weeks following the midterms, Steyer said he and his associates "will be on our front foot" and "deciding what we think is important." 

He said he is more likely to travel the country and hear from voters directly rather than head to Washington "to get the inside baseball because frankly the inside baseball hasn't been right."

"We're going to try and look at things in our own way," he said without getting into specifics.

Vein and other donors say they expect their phones will light up like nothing they’ve ever seen. The donors say they’re expecting to host nonfundraising events where other donors and fundraisers can meet the candidates. 

“I’m going to let some people take a deep breath but when we hit January, it’s time to put the foot on the gas,” Vein said.