Democrats huddle for 2020 ‘friend-raisers’

Democrats huddle for 2020 ‘friend-raisers’
© Anna Moneymaker, Getty Images

Prospective 2020 Democratic candidates aren’t asking donors to write checks just yet, instead participating in “friend-raisers.” 

A friend-raiser is a small, informal gathering donors host for would-be candidates. 

It’s part of an effort to cultivate relationships between potential candidates and donors without money changing hands.

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Attendees don’t typically write checks at a friend-raiser, as they would for traditional fundraisers.

But they trade ideas, business cards and promises to stay in touch, if and when a presidential campaign is launched. 

“I think that as we start looking at people who are or may be raising their hand in 2020, it’s a chance for many people to get educated about the various candidates, and it’s good for the candidate to expand their network,” said Jon Vein, the prominent Democratic donor who plans to host some gatherings for would-be candidates and prospective donors. 

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Juan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete MORE, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Women who inspired 'Hidden Figures' film will be honored with congressional gold medals MORE (Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race Poll: Biden support hits record low of 26 percent The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump demands Bidens testify MORE (N.J.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are among the Democratic politicians who have met with donors at the gatherings, according to multiple sources. 

The would-be candidates do not talk directly about 2020. In fact, before the midterms that was considered taboo. They usually appear at the lunches and dinners for other candidates or causes. 

“No one wanted to even attempt to go there,” said one donor who attended an event for Harris. “They all knew better.” 

The friend-raiser is typically a lunch or a breakfast, with no more than 30 people invited. It is typically hosted by someone close to or at least friendly with a would-be candidate and includes as participants people capable of pulling together tens of millions of dollars.

A Democratic strategist dubbed it a “kicking the tires exercise.”

“And you can get a much larger crowd when you don’t charge a ticket price at the door,” the strategist said.

With as many as 30 Democrats expected to run for president, the pre-announcement donor meet-and-greets are more important than ever to would-be candidates looking to fill their coffers and build an infrastructure for their campaigns. 

At a typical friend-raiser, prospective candidates are asked “tough questions,” according to one donor. 

“People want to make sure these candidates are the real deal before they open their pocketbooks,” the donor said. “I think some people realize rather quickly that some potential candidates are underwhelming very quickly.” 

The meetings began well ahead of the midterms, and those participating typically don’t mention the 2020 race directly.

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing porn star Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE and who has also been weighing a presidential run, has participated in a string of meet-and-greets, including a reception in Philadelphia last week.

“There’s likely to be a very big field and I don’t know a lot people who are locked in with certainty,” Vein said. “Most people are in the category of ‘We’ve got a really deep bench and we’ve got to figure out who to support.’ ” 

“This is a way to double click on some of the candidates in a more intimate environment,” Vein said.

In the coming weeks and months, as potential candidates decide whether or not to enter the race, they’re meeting with prospective donors in private corners of Manhattan restaurants and in offices there, as well as sprawling living rooms in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley — three power centers for political cash. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as much as $500 million came from the New York metropolitan area alone.) 

“Usually the candidate is evasive about whether they’re running and the donors are evasive about whether they’re giving,” said Robert Zimmerman, a major Democratic donor. “It’s sort of a seventh-grade dance where everyone is too nervous to ask the other person to dance, so they smile coquettishly at each other.”

While there’s a particular emphasis on the friend-raisers this year because of the large Democratic field that is expected, candidates in previous elections also met with donors right off the bat. 

Before he announced his candidacy, donors recall meeting then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal 3 ways government can help clean up Twitter MORE (D-Ill.) for living-room coffees. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal GOP senators press State Department for Hunter Biden, Burisma records Krystal Ball hits media over questions on Sanders's electability MORE, the Democratic nominee in 2004, also took part in “warm-up meetings,” as one source put it. 

This cycle, Vein said he expects the meetings with potential candidates to run through the holiday season and through the start of the year. He already has some ideas about who he might host — although he didn’t want to name names just yet.  

Another donor also did not want to drop names of “friends” he was considering hosting. 

“I don’t want to give the wrong idea that I’m supporting them,” the donor said. “It’s too soon for that.”