As Sen. Elizabeth Warren has surged toward the top of the Democratic presidential field, she has found herself torn between two competing imperatives: maintaining her perceived purity from the influence of wealthy contributors and not ceding any financial advantage to President Donald Trump, who is busy breaking fundraising records.
One of the centerpieces of Warren’s anti-corruption message has been her pledge to forgo traditional big-money fundraisers, which advisers believe has helped fuel her rise. From the start, Warren had said the ban only applied to the primary. “I do not believe in unilateral disarmament,” she said when she announced it in February on MSNBC.
But in a reversal, she told CBS News in an interview posted late Tuesday evening that she would extend the pledge through the general election if she were to win the Democratic nomination.
“Look, for me this is pretty straightforward,” Warren said. “Either you think democracy works and electing a president is all about going behind closed doors with bazillionaires and corporate executives and lobbyists and scooping up as much money as possible. Or you think it’s about a grassroots, let’s build this from the ground up.”
Pressed on whether that was her position “no matter how much money Donald Trump is raising,” Warren replied: “Yeah, I’m not going to do the big-dollar fundraisers. I’m just not going to do it. The whole notion behind this campaign is that we can build this together.”
Her aides confirmed the decision on Wednesday but layered on some caveats: While she would forgo fundraisers for her campaign, she would headline open press events for the Democratic National Committee, which has traditionally served as a virtual extension of the nominee. Her spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman, said Warren was committed to helping Democrats “up and down the ballot.”
Powered by small donors, Warren has become one of the strongest Democratic fundraisers of the 2020 field, raising $24.6 million in the last three months from more than 940,000 donations, second only to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who raised $25.3 million.
Warren’s new position on general election fundraisers appears to be an effort to thread the needle between those on the progressive left urging her to permanently swear off soliciting big checks and Democratic officials and activists concerned that such a stand would endanger the party as Trump and the Republicans bank record sums of cash.
Veterans of Democratic politics said the idea that fundraising operations for the party nominee and the party itself would be completely independent was strained.
“Once you are the Democratic nominee, you are the party,” said Rufus Gifford, a former finance director for President Barack Obama, who has donated to multiple 2020 candidates but not to Warren. “You own the party. Your political operation takes over the DNC. You cannot divorce in any way fundraising for the presidential campaign and the Democratic Party.”
The donation limits for the DNC are actually far higher than those for direct contributions to campaigns. The DNC can raise money in increments of $355,000; direct donations to a potential Warren general election committee would be limited to $2,800.
Orthman said Warren would attend DNC events that are open to the press to “make sure the Democratic National Committee, state and local parties, and Democratic candidates everywhere have the resources” they need. She also said Warren was “not going to change a thing in how she runs her campaign,” including “no special access or call time with rich donors or big-dollar fundraisers.”
Warren headlined a DNC event in August, but she did not meet privately with large donors who attended. She is scheduled for another DNC event next week.
The Warren campaign declined to say whether it would create a joint fundraising committee with the DNC, which is traditionally a big lure for contributors who want to support candidates up and down the ballot. Trump and his shared committees with the Republican National Committee raised $125 million in the last three months.
Henry R. Munoz III, who stepped down as finance chair of the DNC earlier this year and has co-hosted a fundraiser for former Vice President Joe Biden, said Warren’s proposed arrangement left him confused.
“I don’t even know how that would work,” Munoz said. Democrats, he added, “have to do everything in their power to work together to create an infrastructure to do battle with the almost unlimited resources that this administration and that party will use to destroy what we believe in.”
Beyond the party itself, an array of Democratic super PACs are gearing up for 2020.
Guy Cecil, the chairman of the biggest such group in the presidential race, Priorities USA, wrote on Twitter that regardless of Warren’s decision, it was “full speed ahead.”
“We’re already up & running ads holding Trump accountable in key states & will be through November next year,” Cecil wrote.
Warren has steadily risen in the polls throughout the year and has recently topped Biden in some surveys both nationally and in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Previously, she had been clear that her ban on fundraisers applied only to the primary. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked her that directly when she announced it (“Yes,” Warren replied). And in an interview with The New York Times over the summer, Warren said, “It’s primaries. This is Democrat against Democrat. I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament.”
Some of her rivals had sought to portray her stance as inconsistent. “Bernie is proud to be the only candidate running to defeat Donald Trump who is 100% funded by grassroots donations — both in the primary and in the general,” Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said pointedly when announcing his campaign’s quarterly financial haul.
There has also been grumbling about the $10 million in leftover Senate funds she seeded her presidential campaign with, some of which was raised from major contributors.
Warren and Sanders are the only two Democrats to skip traditional fundraising events in the primary, where candidates can collect checks of up to $2,800.
Her announcement this week could appeal to more fervent supporters of Sanders, whose base Warren has been seeking to win over.
Tension over how candidates raise their money is an age-old political issue.
In the 2016 race, Trump railed against the influence of big donors in the Republican primary. But once he became the nominee, he quickly embraced the donor world. At the time, he said he did not see a contradiction.
“No,” Trump said then, “because I’m raising money for the party.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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