Crowded field side­lines Dems’ donors

Some want to wait un­til 2020 field shakes out

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - John Fritze and Mau­reen Groppe

WASH­ING­TON – When it comes to the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, some prom­i­nent Demo­cratic donors are putting pa­tience ahead of long-held al­le­giances.

In a break with past elec­tions, when fi­nanciers fell in line be­hind fa­vored can­di­dates, the po­ten­tially crowded field for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion has driven some donors to sit tight rather than com­mit – even if that means putting old re­la­tion­ships on ice.

“I haven’t even started to think about 2020,” said Daniel Berger, a Philadel­phia lawyer who backed Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s cam­paigns. He was an early sup­porter of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 bid but isn’t align­ing him­self with for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den – or any­one else – as a pos­si­ble can­di­date. “Call me back in 45 days,” he said. Early jock­ey­ing for the op­por­tu­nity to take on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in 2020 is well un­der­way, in­clud­ing donor meet­ings across the coun­try, con­trib­u­tors told USA TO­DAY. But the un­wieldy num­ber of would-be can­di­dates is reshuf­fling the race for cash and forc­ing some donors to re­think al­liances.

Demo­cratic donor Marc Stan­ley, a Dal­las at­tor­ney, cre­ated a su­per PAC dur­ing the midterm elec­tion that spent hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to boost Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s pro­gres­sive Se­nate bid in Texas. But as he looks ahead to the pres­i­den­tial race, he isn’t nec­es­sar­ily com­mit­ting to an O’Rourke cam­paign for the White House.

In­stead, Stan­ley said he’s pri­mar­ily fo­cused on win­ning. “This isn’t about the shini­est penny,” he said. “We’ve got to fo­cus in early and pick the can­di­date who can help evict Don­ald Trump.”

O’Rourke raised more than $80 mil­lion in his un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign to un­seat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, spark­ing talk of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Sev­eral prom­i­nent Demo­cratic donors and bundlers told USA TO­DAY they are ea­ger to fo­cus the field and avoid the drawn-out con­flict both par­ties en­dured in 2016. But many also ac­knowl­edged no can­di­date has emerged with a lock on the party’s pro­lific donors.

That’s prompt­ing some donors to sit tight. A spokesman for lib­eral donor Ge­orge Soros told CNBC that the bil­lion­aire may not pick a can­di­date in the pri­mary. In 2016, he gave more than $300,000 to Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“I’m go­ing to wait a bit just to see how it be­gins to shape up,” said Dick Rosen­thal of Cincin­nati, who bun­dled con­tri­bu­tions for Clin­ton. “My in­volve­ment won’t hap­pen to any de­gree un­til there is a clear, lead­ing can­di­date.”

Roughly three dozen Democrats are con­sid­er­ing a run for pres­i­dent in 2020, in­clud­ing Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, who raised more than $35 mil­lion for her re­elec­tion this year in Mas­sachusetts. Sens. Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia and Cory Booker of New Jer­sey, who are also con­sid­er­ing run­ning, raised mil­lions in 2018 de­spite not fac­ing elec­tion.

Adding to the un­cer­tainty for donors is the weight cam­paigns are in­creas­ingly giv­ing to small-dol­lar dona­tions, which pro­pelled Trump in the gen­eral elec­tion and ex­tended Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ pri­mary cam­paign against Clin­ton. That dy­namic might ben­e­fit lesser-known can­di­dates who don’t have deep-pock­eted back­ers.

Michael Mal­bin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cam­paign Fi­nance In­sti­tute, said small-dol­lar dona­tions are likely to ar­rive later in the race as vot­ers get a bet­ter sense of the can­di­dates.

“It doesn’t take a huge amount of money to be­come a cred­i­ble can­di­date,” Mal­bin said. “I don’t think the prob­lem in a pri­mary is whether or not you can be heard in the state of Iowa. The prob­lem is to dif­fer­en­ti­ate your­self.”

Some prom­i­nent Democrats said they’re com­fort­able let­ting that process play out over an ex­tended pe­riod. Tom Steyer, a bil­lion­aire in­vestor who is also con­sid­er­ing his own cam­paign for pres­i­dent in 2020, said he be­lieves prom­i­nent donors made a mis­take in 2016 by get­ting be­hind Clin­ton so early.

Steyer spent more than $90 mil­lion on can­di­dates in 2016 and or­ga­nized an early fundraiser for Clin­ton at his home in San Fran­cisco.

“I don’t like the idea of clear­ing the field,” Steyer said. “I think that that did not serve us well in 2016 and it wouldn’t serve us well in 2020.”

AN­DREW HARNIK/AP

Bernie Sanders and Hil­lary Clin­ton dom­i­nated the much smaller Demo­cratic field n 2016.

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