Warren's fundraising pledge scares some Democrats

Warren's fundraising pledge scares some Democrats
© Greg Nash

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race MORE’s (D-Mass.) pledge to stay away from big-dollar fundraisers if she secures her party’s presidential nomination represents a high-stakes bet that a revolution reshaping Democratic politics can compete with 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’s behemoth campaign account.

That bet has divided Democratic Party officials. Some say it is a wise decision to focus on building a grassroots campaign at a time when Democratic voters and activists are more engaged than ever. Others say it puts the broader Democratic Party at risk at a time when Trump is pulling in more money than any other candidate in American history.

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Warren said earlier this year that during the primary campaign she would avoid the sorts of closed-door fundraisers that traditionally occupy presidential candidates. Instead, she would rely entirely on small-dollar donations and open-press events.

On Tuesday, she told CBS News she would continue that practice into the general election, if she becomes the nominee.

When she made her initial pledge, a little more than a month after announcing she would run, the email list that would become the backbone of her campaign was still a work in progress. In the subsequent months, she has grown that list into a juggernaut that raised more than any candidate in the last three months other than Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats on edge as Iowa points to chaotic race Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal MORE (I-Vt.).

“Elizabeth making that decision early on in the campaign, when her email list was not that lively in terms of contributions and she was forgoing all kinds of rich liberal money in places like Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Boston, was one of the gutsiest decisions I have seen in my 35 years in presidential politics,” said Mike Lux, a longtime Democratic fundraiser. “It was a decision that paid off enormously.”

But some Democrats warned the decision would amount to unilateral disarmament, in part because those closed-door fundraisers with big-dollar donors are about more than just the $2,800 checks they can write to a candidate’s campaign. Those donors also write checks to the Democratic National Committee, and in many cases to state Democratic parties through joint fundraising committees allowed under current campaign finance law.

“What happens when you become the presumptive Democratic nominee is you own the DNC and you own all 50 state Democratic parties,” said Rufus Gifford, a former finance director at the DNC and national finance director for 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’s 2012 re-election campaign. “To essentially tell the national party and the state parties that you won’t be doing fundraisers, it puts them in a very, very challenging financial position.”

Under existing law, a big donor can write one check that is then divvied up between national, state and even local parties. Current campaign contribution limits could allow a donor to funnel more than $1.7 million into a presidential candidate’s coffers, to be divided between the nominee, the DNC and 51 state political parties.

Warren’s campaign has not yet set up a joint fundraising committee with the DNC, a step campaigns typically take much later, when they are on the brink of becoming the presumptive nominee. She has declined to say whether her vice presidential nominee would be allowed to participate in closed-door fundraisers, saying it is too early to begin talking about a running mate.

Some Democrats defended Warren as a vanguard of a new model that is fueling the party’s campaigns and committees. As Democratic engagement and enthusiasm has spiked, the party has seen a wave of small-dollar donors who stocked its candidates’ coffers — even for candidates who swore off money from corporate political action committees, lobbyists and bundlers.

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Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County, Iowa, Democratic Party, said his organization abandoned its traditional reliance on big donors in favor of small-dollar donors who give through ActBlue.

“The mega donors will always be around, but the future is smaller donors mobilized by a combination of Donald Trump and new technology,” Bagniewski said. “If I were running for President and I had to choose between a bunch of bundlers or ActBlue, I'd pick ActBlue without thinking twice.”

Warren’s bet is, in part, a calculation that through-the-roof Democratic enthusiasm will extend to financial contributions through next year’s elections — a bet that she, or whoever the eventual nominee is, will rake in tens of millions of dollars virtually overnight as activists and party regulars coalesce behind their candidate.

“I do not think this will prove to be a meaningful disadvantage in the general election, since she will benefit from the surge in small donor giving that has come to characterize presidential politics,” said Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College and chairman of the board at the Campaign Finance Institute.

There is evidence that those Democratic donors, whether inspired by the candidates or by their opposition to Trump, are giving more money more frequently than they have in the past.

Through the first half of the year, ActBlue said it had seen more than 13 million contributions, totaling $420 million, given by Democratic donors. That equaled 5 million more contributions than the same period in the 2018 election cycle, and more than six times as many donations as through the same point in the 2016 election cycle.

ActBlue said more than 7 million people had signed up for its Express program, which stores donor payment data so that a contribution takes as little as one click. 

Still, Gifford said he worried that Warren’s stand came at a risk to the party she hopes to lead.

“Hate the system all you want. I hate the system. But it is the system,” he said. “As noble as it is, how much is that nobility worth when you lose? And I think we have to measure that, that has to be considered. To put yourself at a massive financial disadvantage, I just think it’s a mistake.”