WASHINGTON – When it comes to the 2020 presidential election, several prominent Democratic donors have told USA TODAY they are putting patience ahead of long-held allegiances.
In a break with past elections, when financiers fell in line behind favored candidates, many are sitting tight and avoiding commitments – even if that means putting old relationships on ice.
Donor meetings have taken place across the country, contributors told USA TODAY. But there are fears of an unwieldy field in 2020 as dozens of Democrats signal interest in taking on President Donald Trump. That is reshuffling the race for cash and forcing some donors to rethink alliances.
“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 Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016 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.
Meanwhile, the early jockeying is well under way. On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., became the first high-profile Democrat to formally move toward a White House bid with her announcement of an exploratory committee. The committee will allow Warren to begin fundraising for a presidential campaign.
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Democratic donor Marc Stanley, a Dallas attorney, created a super PAC during the midterm election that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost outgoing 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 before the polls closed.
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. That would mark a departure from 2016, when 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, a Cincinnati philanthropist 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 2020 presidential run, including Warren, who raised more than $35 million for her re-election this year in Massachusetts. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who are also considering a run, 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 donors backing them.
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 and Democratic donor 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.”
Gerald Acker, a Detroit trial lawyer and former Obama donor, said he’s waited to engage in past elections but wanted to plant an early flag this cycle of his strong opposition to Trump. While he was a major donor for Obama in 2008 and 2012, he isn’t waiting around for Biden to decide if he will run.
Biden, who passed on a run in 2016 after the death of his 46-year-old son, told an audience in Montana this month that he believes he is “the most qualified person in the country to be president.”
Acker described Biden as a “great guy,” but said he’s planning to support Montana Gov. Steve Bullock if he runs.
“Most of these people are great – impressive, smart, hardworking,” Acker said. “But when you go to the dance, you’ve got to take somebody to dance with.”