Democratic donors stuck in shopping phase of primary

Democratic donors are in the “shopping” phase of the 2020 presidential cycle.

Faced with a growing field of possible contenders, donors in many cases are playing the field rather than committing to one particular candidate.

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It’s a stark difference from the past few presidential cycles, when donors quickly threw their support behind a preferred candidate in order to gain favor with them.

This time, with no clear front-runner and more than a dozen candidates expected to enter the race, donors are taking their time, according to half a dozen interviews with major Democratic bundlers and other fundraisers.

They are meeting with multiple candidates, taking calls from others and learning about their various positions.

“Most of us are getting to know the candidates and are looking to create a dialogue with them,” said Robert Zimmerman, a big Democratic donor who signed on early to back Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Klobuchar jokes to Cuomo: 'I feel you creeping over my shoulder' but 'not in a Trumpian manner' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE during the 2008 and 2016 cycles.

“I’m just not ready to jump in,” another major Democratic bundler said recently. “I’m friendly with quite a few of these folks and I’m not quite there yet. I think a lot of us are shopping to see who the best person is to take on [President] Trump. At the end of the day that’s what it all boils down to.”

Rather than writing checks, donors are hosting meet and greets, or “friendraisers,” behind the scenes that are intended to introduce candidates to potential donors. For the donor class, the meetings are a chance to shop for the best candidate.

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Jon Vein, a prominent Democratic donor who also got behind Clinton early on, said he has a “strong preference” for one candidate.

But he hasn’t made a commitment and says “it’s important to get educated” about each candidate and their positions.

While he meets with candidates, he said he is looking at whether he agrees with their policy positions and deciding if he believes they would be a good chief executive and, perhaps most importantly, if they can defeat Trump.

At this stage in their own presidential runs, few voters or donors knew who Jimmy Carter, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics Heavy lapses in judgment are politicizing the justice system Bernie Sanders claims his Sister Souljah moment MORE or Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump's regulatory rollback boosts odds of a financial crisis Five town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics Ex-Obama CIA official makes 'Game of Thrones' cameo MORE even were, Vein said.

“So getting informed and helping folks make their case is sensible if one wanted to make an informed decision,” he added. 

In the meantime, Vein and a couple of other donors in Los Angeles have been hosting would-be candidates who have yet to formally announce whether they are running, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) and Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetMichael Bennet declared cancer-free, paving way for possible 2020 run License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Colo.) and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Budowsky: 2020 Dems should debate on Fox Overnight Health Care: How 2020 Dems want to overhaul health care | Brooklyn parents sue over measles vaccination mandate | Measles outbreak nears record MORE (D-Ohio).

Vein and the group have also organized introductory gatherings for Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharStudent slams Klobuchar for trying to classify pizza sauce as vegetable Pete Buttigieg: 'God doesn't have a political party' The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics MORE (D-Minn.), who announced her candidacy this weekend, as well as Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Swalwell on impeachment: 'We're on that road' after Mueller report The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics MORE (D-Calif.), who is flirting with a run.

While donors and fundraisers aren’t yet committing to specific candidates, they are, in some cases, attending fundraisers and writing checks.

Last week, for example, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Trump Jr. slams 2020 Dems as 'more concerned' about rights of murderers than legal gun owners MORE (D-Calif.) headlined two fundraisers for her campaign in Los Angeles, where attendees included entertainment executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and actress Eva Longoria — two checkwriters for Obama — as well as Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos and Amazon Studios’s Jennifer Salke, according to Variety.

Late last week, Harris also headlined another two jampacked fundraisers in New York — one for low-dollar donors and one for high-dollar donors, according to attendees.

One major Democratic donor who attended one of the events and will likely support her said that Harris proved that she can be president.

“I’ve been doing this a really long time and I was really, really, really struck by her message and people she’s drawing into her campaign,” the donor said. “She’s very, very natural.”

Some donors say it’s still early to commit to a candidate, especially before the field is finalized.

They say they are still waiting to see if former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenAndrew Cuomo: Biden has best chance at 'main goal' of beating Trump Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence MORE decides to run before signing up behind another candidate.

“If he does run, I think it will be a game changer,” one fundraiser predicted. “The race will have a front-runner, whether people want to readily admit that or not.”

Biden has been checking in with donors and fundraisers recently in an effort to keep in touch, according to three Democratic donors.

At the same time, others in the checkwriting crowd are intrigued by the possibility of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) candidacy and say they are purposely keeping the door open.

“There are still so many unknowns,” one donor said. “It’s anybody’s game.”