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A dilemma for Democratic hopefuls: Run to — or away from — big donors?

A dilemma for Democratic hopefuls: Run to — or away from — big donors?
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks at a rally for California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Santa Clarita. On Monday, she declared her presidential candidacy. (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)

The well-heeled liberals who donate big money to Democrats — creating an outsized role for themselves in choosing which party leaders ascend to stardom — are used to candidates swarming them with requests for cash.

This election they face a different dilemma: Candidates worry they are a liability.

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Mega-checks, once the lifeblood of a candidacy, are now a source of angst for the politicians best positioned to reel them in. Super PACs have become a super headache. The allure of dark money is up against the antipathy of party activists.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to “lock arms” and reject all but small donations — an appeal that would have been dismissed in previous cycles as opportunistic and unrealistic — has successfully boxed in some of her top-tier rivals who may need whale-sized donors to compete.

Democrats have talked and postured and pontificated about the ills of money in politics for years, especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the way for a huge influx of corporate and big-money donors. The current cycle is shaping up to be the election where Democratic candidates will be expected to walk the walk.

“For a lot of voters, it all looks like one giant sewer,” said Paul Begala, a former board member of Priorities USA, the massive Democratic super PAC that spent a record $126 million in its unsuccessful effort to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“There is a lot of pressure to simply swear off all PACs,” he said. “The clarity of that message is just so strong at a time when the desire for reform among Democrats is so deep.”

That has left candidates accustomed to being nourished by checks from titans of industry and fantastically wealthy philanthropists carefully choreographing how they are going to survive the money dance.

The candidates most likely to feel the pressure are those who lack the huge base of small donors needed to follow the small-donor fundraising trail blazed in 2016 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and pursued in the midterm election by Democrats including Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

Potential candidates from states with large numbers of wealthy liberal donors, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, face an especially tough choice about whether to leave significant sums untapped if they eschew big contributions. They’re weighing how big a toll persistent public shaming by rival candidates and influential grassroots groups could take on their campaigns if their supporters set up PACs.

For mega-donors themselves, the candidates’ reticence comes with a big upside: Not many are jazzed about financing a potentially divisive Democratic primary. Several big donors have signaled that they’ll be happy to keep their wallets closed for the time being.

Among those inclined against backing anyone is one of the biggest Democratic donors in the country, Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban, who along with his wife spent more than $12 million trying to elect Clinton.

“While there are certainly a number of qualified Democrats running — or thinking about it — Haim strongly believes it’s simply too early in the process to support anyone,” a spokesman for Saban said.

San Francisco philanthropist Susie Tompkins Buell, another huge Clinton backer, is also holding her fire.

And Priorities USA, which was fully behind Clinton long before she won the nomination, has vowed to sit out the primary altogether, focusing instead on building a war chest for the general election.

Some of the would-be candidates, too, already have begun confronting the issue.

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Harris’ boosters are contemplating whether they can exploit a loophole in campaign finance law that would allow them to vacuum donations of unlimited size into an independent super PAC. The money is clearly there, but so is the worry that any such maneuver could hurt the California senator more than help her. Harris declared her candidacy Monday.

Gillibrand, who announced her entry into the race last week and made her initial foray to Iowa last weekend, has already found that even routine exploratory calls to Wall Street can jeopardize an assiduously built image as a reformer. After a news report about the senator’s fundraising overtures to bankers and brokers, the New York senator and expected presidential contender felt compelled to write a response on Twitter:

“What’s important are the facts about my record,” she wrote, continuing on to list several measures she has backed that would impose new restrictions on the financial industry.

Booker, who, like Gillibrand, has been able to raise significant sums from financial-industry donors, risks entering the presidential race with a $4-million albatross around his neck. Steve Phillips, a longtime ally and classmate from Stanford who is a civil rights lawyer and Democratic activist in the Bay Area, launched the first super PAC of the race on Booker’s behalf.

The timing of Phillips’ move baffled advisors to some of his likely opponents, even as they contemplate super PACs for their own candidates. Why not wait to launch, they asked, instead of risking harming your favored candidate’s image before he even has had a chance to define himself?

“I don’t think people are going to have a problem with this,” insisted Phillips, who headed a similar effort for Barack Obama and, more recently, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Phillips pursued the Obama effort even after the candidate sent him a letter asking the PAC to disband. He said he would do the same in this race, even if Booker disavows the effort.

The attorney said he has $4 million in commitments for the super PAC, and he expects that to grow to at least $10 million.

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“Much of this will be about creating a vehicle for millions of professionals of color who make over $100,000 a year, many of whom would want to support a candidate like Cory Booker,” Phillips said, but he acknowledged there are no restrictions on others — such as drug companies or Wall Street brokerages — from also contributing large amounts.

“I don’t see a problem with professionals of color organizing an effort to support a candidate of color,” said Phillips, who, like Booker, is African American. “I intend to keep doing it regardless of what anyone says at any particular moment,” he added. “In a lot of ways, this is bigger than Cory. He is the best vehicle to advance the cause.”

Booker’s aides have kept their distance from the effort.

“Sen. Booker continues to weigh with his family and friends whether he should run for president, and any effort to draft him into the race is outside of his control and will not affect his decision,” said Booker spokesman Jeff Giertz. “There has been no activity on his part or that of his team to organize or endorse the creation of a super PAC."

Candidates in the Democratic primaries can expect to be pressured not only to repudiate big money, but also to pledge to pay hefty penalties from their campaign accounts if outside groups spend large sums on their behalf. Warren can make the case that such pacts work, as she negotiated one in her 2012 race against then-incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican.

A couple of billionaires mulling a run have also felt the heat. Led by Warren, progressive activists have put them on notice that candidates who self-fund their campaigns are likely to face relentless charges of trying to “buy the election” as well as comparisons to Trump.

Already, one billionaire who was eyeing the race, Californian Tom Steyer, announced he would not run and will instead steer $40 million toward his campaign to impeach the president.

But as the field of candidates narrows, history suggests big donors accustomed to shaping the race will not be content to let it run its course without them. There is little indication that they will be deterred by the prospect that their checks could prove toxic. And the candidates who most need those checks are banking on the race ending up as business as usual for the money game.

“It’s not super PACs, it’s not your donors, it’s not what company you once worked for that people care about,” said a senior advisor to one of the hopefuls resistant to “linking arms” with Warren — and resistant to talking about it on the record. “You just have to own it and move on.”

Interviews with people heavily involved in big-ticket fundraising in Hollywood and on Wall Street suggest that donors are not seeing this year’s awkward optics as a reason to stay on the sidelines throughout the primary.

“Some of these candidates aren't going to want to be seen associating with a lot of big money,” said Ted Trimpa, a Democratic strategist in Denver with connections to many of the party's top donors. “But once people realize the money it takes to run, I just don't see how you can pull it off without some big funders behind you.”

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