Biden's war chest swells as donors, many in California, grow increasingly alarmed by Trump

Evan Halper
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable on economic reopening in Philadelphia on Thursday.  (Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

It was another in an unrelenting procession of Zoom fundraisers — the script familiar, the donors determined not to be deterred by technical glitches, and the candidate about to go through the motions — when Joe Biden revealed an expression of shock.

“Wow,” he said as the camera flicked to him on his side porch, blooming flowers in the background. The event’s hosts — California Sen. Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis — had just revealed that the hourlong exchange Tuesday evening would net his campaign $3.5 million.

It was a notable haul for a candidate whose career-long struggle with fundraising has been a cause for high anxiety among some Democrats.

And it wasn’t an outlier.

Suddenly, Biden is raking in cash at a breathtaking clip, reducing worries among Democrats that his campaign would be overwhelmed by the war chest amassed by President Trump.

“In the last week it has really come loose,” said former California State Controller Steve Westly, a major Biden fundraiser. “Trump is more erratic than ever. People are afraid. ... They are writing checks.”

At the same time that big donors, many of them from California, are digging into their wallets for Biden, he is also benefiting from a boom in small-dollar donations that has boosted budgets of progressive organizations nationwide.

Propelled by an outpouring of support for racial justice groups, the left’s main fundraising hub, ActBlue, has seen its previous daily record for donations in 2020 broken repeatedly this month.

The sustained gush of dollars heading Biden’s way also reflects a growing confidence among large donors that the former vice president’s campaign has begun to get its act together after weeks in which many of them criticized it for being unfocused, understaffed and unsophisticated.

The party’s presumed nominee has built bridges to his more progressive primary rivals, hastening the pace at which their backers are falling into line. A campaign that not long ago seemed technologically inept has upped its Zoom game.

“To call people and say, ‘Please give me $100,000 for a 50-minute Zoom call with no Q&A, no shaking hands with the candidate’? It’s not the easiest ask,” said Wade Randlett, who is helping coordinate Biden’s fundraising in the Bay Area. Yet, donors are stepping up more quickly and willingly than even Randlett — an eternal Biden optimist — anticipated. “I have been pleasantly surprised,” he said.

The Biden campaign declined to reveal how much it has raised so far in June, but figures from individual events, along with the campaign’s recent aggressive use of social-media advertising, all point toward big numbers. The campaign has added 1.2 million names to its email list in just 10 days, Biden aides said.

The Democratic National Committee has raised more at the beginning of this month than it has at the start of any other month since it began using ActBlue in 2017, according to party officials. The party’s fundraising is outpacing what it was at this point in October and November 2018, when a massive cash influx played a big role in helping the Democrats take back the House.

While Biden still may not generate intense enthusiasm from Democratic activists, that no longer seems to be holding them back from writing checks.

“Are people saying, ‘Oh, my God, I am so excited about Joe Biden’? No,” said one West Coast bundler of big contributions who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. “But they don’t care. Nobody cares if you are not excited. They just want Trump out.”

A catalyst for wealthier donors was seeing current and former military leaders raising alarms about Trump’s use of federal troops to confront protesters, the bundler said. “Once the generals came out, people were like, ‘This is really frightening.’”

Part of the fundraising success reflects an overall surge of contributions to groups on the left that has followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent nationwide wave of protests.

Established civil rights groups like the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Poverty Law Center have benefited, but the surge has most acutely transformed front-line activist organizations, some of which had tiny budgets only a few weeks ago.

A small organization called the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which posts bail for arrested protesters and others awaiting trial, raised $20 million in four days earlier this month. A memorial fund for Floyd created by his brother Philonise had a goal of raising $1.5 million on GoFundMe. It has already climbed past $14 million.

“It is an expression of people’s solidarity with the movement,” said Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which runs a nationwide directory of bail funds called the National Bail Fund Network. “The scale is bigger than anything we have seen in the recent past.”

Some 3.5 million people have given a total of $60 million to community bail funds over the last two weeks.

Democratic outrage over Trump’s response to the protests as well as his handling of the coronavirus crisis has propelled donors off the sidelines much earlier than was anticipated.

“The series of crises and inflection moments the country is facing is spurring donors to get into the game far earlier and far more generously than they were planning,” said Lily Adams, a spokeswoman for Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Biden. “Folks are watching this president bungle crisis after crisis … and thinking how traumatic it would be to have four more years of this. It energizes them to give.”

And those who can afford it are free to write much bigger checks to Biden than only weeks ago. Now that he has clinched the nomination, the Democratic National Committee has entered into a joint fundraising agreement that allows donors to give up to $620,600. The Trump campaign has a similar arrangement with the Republican National Committee.

Trump is responding with his own fundraising offensive. On Thursday, he planned to hold his first in-person donor gathering since the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders took hold, aiming to raise $10 million at an event in Dallas. The move has generated discussion among Democrats about whether Biden can keep up without taking the same health risks as Trump and holding in-person meetings.

So far, however, Biden is doing just fine on Zoom.

“Three months ago I was skeptical, and I thought it would be really hard to do this,” Westly said of virtual events. “The fact is, people are getting used to Zoom. Everybody is on it.”

Use of the technology has enabled the candidate to raise money far more efficiently than in the past, when courting big checks necessitated jetting all over the country.

Zoom turned out to be a perfectly suitable venue for Biden to persuade a group of wealthy climate activists that he can walk the walk on their issue. A recent virtual event raised $4 million from just 25 activists who bought tickets with a starting price of $100,000.

“People don’t actually know that much about Joe Biden, which sounds funny to say about a guy who has been at the center of American politics for so long,” said billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, who co-hosted the Zoom event with venture capitalist Swati Mylavarapu; her husband, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers; and Nicole Systrom, a clean-tech entrepreneur.

The donors who paid to show up “were really, really impressed by his performance,” said Steyer, who was among Biden’s Democratic primary rivals. “Some of them did not realize how much he knows, how much he cares, how high he prioritizes this.”

Events at the Steyer residence in San Francisco had in the past been a big draw for donors, but he’s now bullish about Zoom. So is Susie Tompkins Buell, the sought-after progressive donor in San Francisco whose elegant penthouse apartment with sweeping views of the Bay Area has hosted some of the most memorable presidential fundraisers over the years.

“The efficiency is incredible,” she said of Zoom fundraising.

“People understand that. They would rather contribute to an efficient system and see money go toward what needs to be done than go to some fancy party and rub elbows with people they don’t know. I‘m fascinated with how well it is working.”