If there were a moment in this presidential race when Hillary Clinton could act on her stated outrage over the obscene amount of money in politics, it is probably now, having eclipsed her rival Donald Trump in terms of cash in the bank and blocked off his most direct paths to victory.
But Clinton isn’t tapping the brakes. She is instead on an extended tour through the nation’s elite enclaves — from Laguna Beach to the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard to Magic Johnson’s house in Los Angeles – in an unrestrained fundraising blitz that makes even some supporters chafe.
The price of entry at several of the stops, such as Monday’s dinner at the Beverly Hills home of entertainment mogul Haim Saban, is $50,000 per person. On the Vineyard on Saturday, Clinton netted roughly $2 million at a single cocktail party, then darted off to a small dinner event at a billionaire’s home that generated another $1 million.
By midweek, the Clinton war chest had grown by many millions more, as Clinton hopscotched on a three-day California swing from Johnson’s house to the Saban affair and then to the home of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, where Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx and Tobey Maguire also showed up. Then it was off to the Bay Area for multiple events, including one hosted by Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook.
Along the way, Clinton’s campaign is pushing the boundaries of fundraising further than any presidential nominee ever has. She has seized on loose federal campaign financing enforcement to substantially drive up the amount of money that can be accepted from the wealthiest donors. And her campaign has also taken advantage of GOP disarray to build a considerably more aggressive network of state and federal committees that often work merely as pass-throughs to step around legal donation limits.
“The amount a single check can be now is many times higher than it was in 2012,” said Ian Vandewalker, counsel to the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. A landmark campaign finance ruling at the Supreme Court, along with recent congressional action, he said, extended much of the unfettered giving that had been associated previously with super PACs to official campaign accounts.
Over-the-top fundraising can also make for poor optics as the Democratic nominee struggles to overcome voter anxiety about her trustworthiness and decades of donor controversies involving the Clintons, from the selling of overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom during her husband’s administration to six-figure payments for secretive speaking engagements with Wall Street investment firms.
Sixty percent of voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month said they do not see her as honest. The immense cash infusions are now coming to a candidate who regularly says some variation of what she did at a community college round table in Iowa recently: “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all.”
Clinton is also jetting off to the mansions of America’s wealthiest at the same time that new disclosures from her controversial private email server while she was secretary of State suggest that big foreign donors may have used the family’s Clinton Foundation as a back door for getting access to her.
One communication involved a crown prince from Bahrain who did not succeed through official channels in getting an audience with Secretary Clinton, but quickly got in to see her when a foundation executive reminded a top Clinton aide of what a big friend he was to the organization.
Another involved a request by rock musician Bono, a foundation donor, to link up to the International Space Station during concerts; Clinton’s team was stumped on how to oblige.
More damaging than the contents of the emails, though, was the perception that Clinton had tried to hide them from the public. They emerged as the result of an FBI investigation and lawsuits from conservative groups, contradicting assurances Clinton made months earlier that she had disclosed all work related-emails from her time at State.
But even if Clinton were inclined to try to burnish her public image by taking a break from this month’s ceaseless schedule of hobnobbing at mansions and seaside estates, campaign finance reformers say it probably is not an option. The pressure to keep vacuuming up cash is too great. There is always something else to raise money for: the next frontier of swing states, the push to take back the Senate, the drive to put more Democrats in the House.
The momentum that Clinton could gain by appealing to the current populist sentiment to spurn big donors is no match for the momentum to be gained from crushing her opponent in fundraising.
“You could imagine someone saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which advocates campaign finance reform. “But the forces are so strong that is unlikely to happen.”
There is also an irony to fundraising at this stage: The less a candidate needs cash, the more that comes his or her way.
“As you become more prohibitively the favorite, more people are interested in making contact with you and having access to your administration,” Biersack said. “It becomes easier to raise money when victory is in sight.”
Carol and Frank Biondi anticipated that they would raise maybe $750,000 for Clinton at the cocktail party at their waterside home in Martha’s Vineyard last weekend. It was the 10th event they have held for Clinton at their home during her political career. But people kept asking to buy tickets, said Frank Biondi, former chief executive of Universal Studios. Soon they were up to 800 sold, totaling roughly $2 million raised. The Biondis had to roll out the tent their daughter got married under to fit everyone, the biggest tent on Martha’s Vineyard.
“The prospect of Donald Trump being in the White House has really affected people in a way that they are willing to write checks of real significance,” said Biondi. His event, though, was a relative bargain, with tickets sold for as little as $1,000.
Biondi described his Martha’s Vineyard event as a laid-back affair where Clinton caught up with her many friends on that summer playground of the well-to-do. “She is very comfortable with the Vineyard crowd,” he said. “She knows half the people by name from being here and repeated fundraisers. She was very relaxed.”
“The biggest problem was finding a place to park all the cars,” Biondi said. There were eight cabs on hand to shuttle donors from their vehicles to the function. Lots of donors lingered after it ended, but the highest rollers, the ones who gave $50,000, headed to the home of the billionaire Lynn Forester de Rothschild for dinner with Clinton.
Clinton’s campaign prohibited the media from entering, as it does with most every fundraiser, a break from the practice of President Obama. Dispatches from the reporters stationed outside who are straining to cover what is going on are spare. After the dinner at Magic Johnson’s, one only “was able to see Magic wave goodbye to [Clinton] from the driveway.”
While Biondi says the stakes of the election are too high to fret about the political hit that Clinton might suffer for spending so much time among the wealthiest donors, progressive organizers will be relieved when Clinton’s 11-day traipse through the estates of the mega-rich comes to a close. She is relying on them to mobilize the young voters still agonizing over whether to turn out for her.
“The way Secretary Clinton is going to win this race is if she earns enthusiastic support from millions of committed activists all across this country,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, one of the nation’s largest grass-roots organizing groups. “It is far more difficult to earn that enthusiastic support when you are spending your time at $50,000-a-plate luncheons.”
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