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2020 Dems sprint toward critical FEC deadline

Democratic presidential hopefuls are barreling toward a critical quarterly fundraising deadline on Sunday that will offer one of the clearest signs to date of viability in a sprawling primary field.

With more than 15 candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination and grass-roots fundraising being used as one of two factors in determining who will make it to the primary debates, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) deadline is likely to carry even more weight this year.

"This determines who the real top tier is. This determines press coverage," Jeff Roe, who managed Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent MORE’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential bid, said. "This is going to be the separation line between contenders and pretenders."

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In emails and text messages to supporters, candidates have been pleading for last-minute donations in stark — at times even desperate — terms, casting the looming fundraising deadline as a make-or-break moment for their presidential ambitions.

"I wasn’t born a frontrunner. I’ve never had anything handed to me. And I fully intend to earn my spot on the debate stage," former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said in a recent fundraising email making note of the Sunday deadline.

Other candidates are managing expectations ahead of the FEC deadline.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), an adept fundraiser in his own right, has noted in emails to supporters that some other Democrats "started with millions of dollars from past campaigns" and that he has had "a lot less time to fundraise."

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSchwarzenegger says he would 'absolutely' help Biden administration Disney chair says he would consider job in Biden administration if asked Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill MORE (D-Mass.), for example, has more than $11 million in her Senate campaign coffers that she can transfer to her presidential operation. Another 2020 contender, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' MORE (D-N.Y.), has more than $10 million.

Adding to the fundraising pressure facing 2020 hopefuls are the looming Democratic primary debates, which are set to begin on June 26.

Under new guidelines issued this year by the Democratic National Committee, candidates hoping to make it onto the debate stage will have to meet one of two criteria: score at least 1 percent in three qualifying polls or receive campaign contributions from 65,000 individual donors.

That requirement has forced candidates dwindling in the polls to focus instead on honing their fundraising pitches.

Andrew YangAndrew YangGroups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Media and Hollywood should stop their marching-to-Georgia talk Andrew Yang: Democrats need to adopt message that government is 'working for them' MORE, a long-shot 2020 contender, put a donor counter on his campaign’s website in a bid to rally supporters to essentially fund him onto the debate stage. So far, he’s received more than 80,000 unique contributions, ensuring him a spot in June’s debate.

And in a fundraising email to supporters on Thursday, Castro’s campaign was blunt: "Julián hasn’t gotten enough gifts to qualify for the debates yet."

Candidates aren’t required to hit the 65,000-donor threshold by the March 31 reporting deadline to qualify for the first Democratic debate.

Adam Parkhomenko, a former aide to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE, said that weak fundraising performances in the first quarter could give some candidates a boost ahead of the June debate, pointing to Castro as an example.

"If he doesn’t have a strong report, that might kind of push people to make a contribution, even if they’re not on board with him, just to make sure there’s a good group of people on stage," Parkhomenko said.

Other candidates such as O’Rourke and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) are already touting their small-dollar donor armies as a sign of their momentum and long-term political viability.

In the first 24 hours after launching his 2020 presidential bid, Sanders’s campaign said it had raised a whopping $5.9 million from 223,047 individual contributors across all 50 states.

Likewise, O’Rourke’s campaign said it raked in $6.1 million from more than 128,000 unique contributions in the first 24 hours.

With Sanders comfortably within the donor threshold to qualify for the first debate, he has set an even more ambitious goal to get 1 million contributions by the Sunday FEC deadline — a target his campaign has mentioned in several emails to supporters this week.  

"This deadline gives us the chance to make presidential election history: we may be able to say that our supporters have made 1 million contributions this quarter," a recent email from Sanders’s campaign said.

Roe said those massive early fundraising hauls set a high bar for the rest of the primary field, especially for candidates who entered the 2020 race weeks or even months before Sanders and O’Rourke.

"If you can’t raise in a month or a few months what the top contenders raised in a day, then, I mean, the writing is on the wall," Roe said.

While Sunday marks the close of books for the first fundraising quarter, candidates don’t have to file their reports until April 15, when the public will get its first real glimpse into the campaigns’ finances.

What those reports won’t show, however, is how many small-dollar donors gave to the candidates.

That’s because campaigns are required to report only individuals who contribute more than $200. It will ultimately be up to the campaigns to decide whether to disclose their number of donors.

The first-quarter reports are likely to be an early sign of long-term viability, but a poor fundraising performance isn't necessarily a death knell for the candidates, Parkhomenko said.

"You only have two things in campaign — it’s time and money," he said. "If you’re not raising money, it’s going to be tough, but you still have a lot of time here."

"Something can change at any time," he added.