Buttigieg becomes first winner in fundraising primary

Democratic presidential hopefuls are facing a critical test of their momentum and viability in the first-quarter fundraising deadline.

Some, such as Pete Buttigieg, are passing with flying colors. The South Bend, Ind., mayor reported raising an impressive $7 million in the two months since he began exploring the White House race.

The figure is a significant one for a candidate who has only really seen his national profile soar in the wake of a CNN town hall event last month. In the 24 hours after his appearance at that event, Buttigieg’s team said he raised more than $600,000.

{mosads}Other candidates are on track to surpass Buttigieg’s first-quarter haul, though they have not yet released fundraising estimates.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), for example, said he raked in more than $6 million in the 24 hours after announcing his candidacy last month. He raised more than $1 million over the first weekend alone, according to his campaign.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another proven fundraising giant, said he brought in nearly $6 million in the first 24 hours of his White House bid and finished his first week on the campaign trail with a $10 million haul.

Still, Buttigieg’s first-quarter fundraising haul sends a signal to other candidates that the Democratic race is anyone’s game.

“This is a wide open race, where in a very short time someone like Mayor Buttigieg goes from dark horse to first or second tier,” said John Lapp, a veteran Democratic strategist.

Candidates have until April 15 to file their campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Only then will the public get a complete picture of how the 2020 hopefuls are faring in the money race.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member, said he expects other candidates to begin touting their first-quarter fundraising hauls soon. But exactly when the campaigns choose to make those numbers public can be significant in itself, he said.

“If these numbers are not big, you want to whisper them out in the middle of a busy news day,” he said. “And if your numbers are strong, you want to get them out on a Monday morning in a slow news cycle, if you can.”

Sanders and O’Rourke have so far proven to be among the most prolific fundraisers when it comes to small-dollar contributions — those totaling $200 or less.

In an email to supporters last week, Sanders’s campaign noted that their average donation size is “about $20.” O’Rourke’s campaign touted a $48 average donation.

Those talking points underscore the increasing significance of grass-roots giving in Democratic politics, especially as 2020 hopefuls swear off campaign cash from corporate PACs and lobbyists.

“That $25 donor is going to come back and give on a regular basis, is going to put a lawn sign up, is going to call their neighbors,” Zimmerman said. “If I had to choose to raise $6 million among large donors or $6 million among small donors, I’d want the small donors every time.”

A few candidates or potential candidates are facing questions about their fundraising.

Former Vice President Joe Biden isn’t in the race yet, so he won’t have a first quarter report to file. He’s thought to be waiting until after the deadline to jump into the race in order to maximize the amount of time he has to raise crucial campaign cash.

By waiting, Biden would give himself much-needed time to rack up an impressive fundraising haul, one Democratic source who has worked on presidential campaigns noted.

“If you’re Joe Biden, you probably want the full 90 days of fundraising,” the source said.

Other candidates are still courting wealthy donors and attending big-money fundraisers, though they rarely, if ever, tout such activities publicly.

Buttigieg is slated to attend a fundraiser in New York later this month hosted by Broadway executive Jordan Roth. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was expected at a fundraiser at the home of Sally Susman, an executive at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, on Sunday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has vowed not to hold high-dollar fundraisers or solicit money from wealthy donors in a bid to cast her campaign as powered almost exclusively by grass-roots supporters.

It’s unclear if that strategy will pay dividends. Warren has lagged behind several of her opponents in fundraising, posting a haul of less than $300,000 on the day of her exploratory committee announcement on Dec. 31.

Warren’s decision not to court high-dollar donors has reportedly been a source of friction in her campaign. The New York Times reported on Sunday that Michael Pratt, the senator’s longtime finance director, resigned after urging Warren not to eschew the help of wealthy fundraisers.

Basil Smikle, a political consultant and a former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, said that part of the challenge facing Warren is that she has struggled to draw sharp distinctions between herself and candidates like Sanders, who has built an intensely loyal network of supporters willing to donate repeatedly to his campaign.

“For Warren, she wants to stay in the top tier. Fundraising will help, but from my point of view, I don’t think she will, because if you want someone like Bernie, you’ll just support Bernie,” Smikle said.

“I understand the nuance and the policy difference between the two, but I don’t know if that difference is pronounced enough to drive people to support her over Bernie.”

Warren does have a financial cushion in the form of more than $11 million that she has transferred to her campaign from her Senate committee.

Several other candidates also have money from previous campaigns that will come in handy during what is sure to be a long and arduous primary contest. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has more than $10 million in her Senate campaign account; Sanders has about $9 million in his; and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have roughly $4 million apiece in their Senate committees.

While first quarter fundraising is seen as a sign of early strength and momentum, campaigns have no reason to hit the panic button just yet, Smikle said.

“What we’re going to see as more candidates roll out their numbers is a reframing of the discussion of who’s going to be viable,” Smikle said. “But there is something to be said about peaking too early. Best advice for candidates — be patient, run their race and not someone else’s.”

Others said that a lackluster first fundraising quarter could be a harbinger of troubles to come for the candidates.

“The problem with power and success and strength this early is that it tends to increase,” Lapp said. “If you’re struggling, each quarter becomes exponentially harder.”

Tags 2020 presidential race Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Cory Booker Democratic Party Democratic presidential primary Elizabeth Warren Fundraising Indiana Joe Biden Kirsten Gillibrand Pete Buttigieg

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