California's big donors are giving the edge to Buttigieg

California's big donors are giving the edge to Buttigieg
© Greg Nash

California always loves the next new thing. And this summer’s West Coast sensation isn’t a breakout star from a surprise hit film, or the latest Apple gadget you didn’t know you needed.

It’s Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Saagar Enjeti rips Buttigieg for praising Obama after misquote Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE. At least when it comes to political donors.

This is an unexpected situation. Major Democratic funders out here are concentrated in two areas: Big Tech up north, Big Entertainment in the south. True to their business models, Hollywood usually leads with its heart while Silicon Valley billionaires drill down on numbers and probabilities. Those separate calculations don’t often add up to the same candidate. But this year, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is making friends all over the state.

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Also unusual: One of the other leading Democratic presidential contenders, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOutsider candidates outpoll insider candidates Poll: Buttigieg leads Democratic field in Iowa Press: Another billionaire need not apply MORE (D-Calif.), is a “favorite daughter” who should be far out ahead in contribution totals. Leading California donors have strongly supported her previous successful campaigns for state attorney general and the U.S. Senate. As a detail-driven prosecutor who also is an Asian-African-American woman, she checks the boxes for both head and heart, both Silicon Valley and the big studio boardrooms.

But Buttigieg came on strong in the spring and has not let up. In the second quarter of this year, he topped all candidates in nationwide fundraising, bringing in close to $25 million. A sizable share came from California: Harris raised $3.18 million here, but Buttigieg took in $3.75 million — more than half of that from big-money sources in Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Both candidates will be back fundraising in the state over the next two weeks, before the start of the fall campaign run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire. Harris is by no means out of the money contest in California, but she must confront two obstacles in her financial face-off with Buttigieg.

First: Up in Silicon Valley, where her contact list is deep, the senator finds herself battling for dollars with a third candidate, one who still hasn’t broken into the top polling tier  — Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J). Despite his low numbers, Big Tech is showing allegiance to Booker, a Stanford graduate who has cultivated personal friendships in Silicon Valley for more than 25 years.

He’s invested in Valley start-ups and the Valley has invested in him, donating more than a half-million dollars to Booker in his five years in the Senate. Those old school ties are strong, and this no doubt keeps Harris’ Big Tech fundraising numbers in check. Buttigieg, as the shiny new outsider, gives contributors someone fresh to fund.

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“Fresh” is the second hurdle confronting Harris: Donors here like to feel they “discovered” Buttigieg. Hollywood’s seasoned, knowledgeable gay checkbook elite supported him early on, which lifted the Midwesterner’s profile throughout the state.

And in California, Buttigieg’s youth, at age 37, is a plus, not a minus. Most big donors made their marks — and their millions — when they were much younger than he is now. Facebook’s Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergThere are poor ideas, bad ones and Facebook's Libra Facebook announces new payment service Computer software pioneer John McAfee rips Facebook's Libra project MORE started building his fortune before he left college. Hollywood mogul David Geffen founded Asylum Records when he was 27, became vice-chairman of Warner Bros. Studios by 32, and retired (for just a little while) at age 34.

But even if Buttigieg were to lose momentum at some point, Silicon Valley and Hollywood undoubtedly would rally around whoever is the eventual Democratic nominee. The big question mark then applies to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report Giuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry MORE and just what kind of financial support he could expect.

After a strong start early this year, Biden has been eclipsed by Buttigieg and Harris in donor excitement. He spent significant time in the state this summer and plans on another California swing in September. That could help put him back in the limelight.

Even if that works, Biden and Harris are no doubt hoping the bright Buttigieg sparkle quickly wears off, like a hot summer action movie that opens big, only to fade when audience buzz moves on to the next extravaganza.

Maybe. But no one predicted that a Midwestern mayor whose name few could pronounce until recently would get this far. Here in the Golden State, Buttigieg has shown himself to be more than the political equivalent of an easily forgotten popcorn flick.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.