Democratic Donors Not Ready to Commit to Potential 2020 Candidates

January 30, 2019

Many of the Democrats mulling a presidential bid have been able to rely on the same major donors to bankroll their past campaigns, but most donors aren't yet ready to get behind a favorite candidate.

More than 1,500 donors have sent money to three or more of the current or prospective Democratic candidates at some point in their careers, totaling more than $9 million donated to their campaigns and committees, according to a McClatchy analysis of campaign finance data. Donors have received calls and emails from several 2020 campaigns, but many of them are holding off until the candidates start to separate from each other.

Victor Kovner, a New York attorney and longtime Democratic donor, said he is in "wait-and-see mode."

"There are plenty of candidates I’m perfectly happy with, but I want to support the person with the best chance of defeating President Trump," he added.

Out of the Democratic donors shared by the current or prospective Democratic candidates, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y) has collected the most money, totaling $2 million over the course of her political career. However, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has been supported by the largest number of donors. Over half of the donors contributed to her campaign. She has also shared the most donors–over 200– in common with other candidates, including Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Gillibrand.

The group of donors includes a mix of big names, such as singers Barbra Streisand and Nancy Sinatra. There is also J.J. Abrams, who is directing the latest installment of the Star Wars series, and Adam McKay, who directed Anchorman. And there are numerous billionaires, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, real estate developer Eli Broad and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Jill Iscol, a New York-based philanthropist who has given more than $50,000 combined to prospective 2020 candidates and is a close friend of Hillary Clinton, said that while she’s excited by the array of women who have announced their candidacies, she’s not yet ready to commit.

"For now, I am keeping my powder dry," she said.

Michael Kelly, a San Francisco attorney who’s contributed to five of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, hasn’t decided who to support either. But he said that he thinks some of the more liberal candidates such as Sanders and Warren wouldn’t be able to beat Trump, and that he would like to see the party nominate a younger candidate.

"I don’t have a horse in the race," said Kelly. "The most important thing is finding someone who has sufficient national appeal to get elected."

Kovner, a board member of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, said his priority will be helping down-ballot Democrats, specifically Democrats who won competitive races in 2018.

"I’m concerned Democrats are too focused on the presidential primary and will give insufficient attention to House and Senate candidates," Kovner said. "The presidential race may well take care of itself."

Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire environmentalist who decided not to run for president in 2020, says he is focused on his campaign to impeach President Donald Trump and will use support for impeachment as a litmus test to determine who he wants to support.

While many donors are keeping their checkbooks closed for now, San Francisco philanthropist Douglas Goldman said he supports Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) for president after speaking with her on the phone about a month ago. Goldman has contributed to five of the Democratic contenders in the past. He said he agreed to bundle contributions for the Harris campaign, a role he held with the Obama campaign also. Harris has publicly said she would not accept money from super PACs or corporate PACs, but that is not preventing her from soliciting small-dollar contributions or courting wealthy donors to tap into their networks for the cash needed to compete with other Democrats.

"‘Bundler’ has become kind of an ugly word, but these candidates need to raise an ungodly amount of money and they can’t do it all themselves and their paid staff can’t do it all themselves," Goldman said.