Biden draws on Obama donor network to jump-start 2020 bid




Joe Biden and Donald Trump

Barack Obama and Joe Biden arrive for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, 2017. As Biden moves closer to a campaign for president, the question of how he would fund that campaign has loomed over his decision. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

2020 elections

The former vice president is counting on major Obama donors to help him keep pace with online fundraising dynamos early in 2020 campaign.

Top donors who helped power President Barack Obama’s campaigns are getting ready to boost Joe Biden for 2020.

The former vice president, whose fundraising lagged during his previous bids for the White House, would this time enter the race with a base of support from many of his party’s major givers, according to interviews with 20 top Obama fundraisers, who each raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect the former president.

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Many of Obama’s backers say deciding which candidate or candidates to support in 2020 is difficult. But Biden, who a number of Obama’s funders count as a friend and former coworker in the administration, comes out of the gate with a crop of top-tier fundraisers ready to back his bid and other donors willing to cut personal checks to jump-start Biden’s campaign, though they might wait to throw the full power of their networks behind him.

Biden’s ability to put together a network of donors is a major test for the vice president — possibly moreso than for any other 2020 candidate. The small-donor digital network now so critical to the Democratic Party did not exist the last time Biden ran for office on his own, and he does not have a pre-built base of support from grassroots donors, like potential rivals such as Beto O’Rourke have — though Biden did build an online presence last year for his PAC.

That would put a premium on Biden’s ability to attract high-dollar donors to sustain his campaign early — and give him time to try to build a broader fundraising program that could rival those of his competitors.

If [Biden] got in, I would be leaning in that direction because, simply put, he’s best qualified, he has the stature and the experience to win the race,” said Steve Westly, the former state controller in California who raised more than half a million dollars for Obama during each of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “I think a lot of people will be coalescing around him.”

Those offering their help to Biden include former colleagues like Denise Bauer, former United States Ambassador to Belgium and longtime Obama fundraiser who raised more than $4 million for his presidential campaigns.

“I have been encouraging Vice President Biden to run. I think the country needs him and if he gets in, I will be with him!” Bauer said in an email. “I have seen him interact with foreign leaders, colleagues, and everyday Americans. His depth of knowledge, skill, and compassion are extraordinary.”

As Biden, the front-runner in recent polls, moves closer to a campaign for president, the question of how he would fund that campaign has loomed over his decision. It has not been a strength of Biden’s past campaigns: As Obama and Hillary Clinton topped $100 million raised in 2007 in preparation for the 2008 primaries, Biden raised a total of $14.3 million before dropping out in January 2008.

This time, Biden would enter the race as a respected party elder and an heir to the Obama legacy, but he would need to compete with candidates who have excelled in a new fundraising world focused on small-dollar donors. Bernie Sanders and O’Rourke each raised roughly $6 million in 24 hours after announcing their presidential campaigns, well ahead of any other rivals and largely from online donors.

“His great strength is, he’s regarded as [a] very strong candidate to defeat Donald Trump and unite the party and the country,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and fundraiser. “The test of his candidacy will be engaging the diverse base of the Democratic Party and engaging [the] grassroots, which is the new small-dollar donor leadership.”

Like the majority of other Democrats, Biden has also indicated he would not rely on the help of a single-candidate super PAC to boost his name in the 2020 race, saying in February that he would “not be part of a super PAC” if he were to run for president.

“An awful lot of people have offered to help, and the people who are usually the biggest donors in the Democratic Party and I might add some major Republican folks,” Biden added during the appearance at the University of Delaware.

Supporters are not blind to the possible pitfalls of a Biden run. In particular, many wish he were younger and better positioned to connect with young voters.

But members of the Obama network have kept up with Biden in the years since Obama’s presidency. More recently, they have spoken with consiglieres like strategist Steve Ricchetti about the possibility of a campaign. And they believe he would be the candidate best-positioned to take on Trump in a general election.

“He compares and contrasts with the current president in a positive way for Democrats,” said Joseph Falk, who raised more than $1 million for Obama’s reelection and now describes himself as a “Biden loyalist” for 2020. “His fealty to the law, his honor, his ability to speak truth to power, his ability to not be an extremist on either side I think bodes well.”

Other Obama donors interviewed by POLITICO described a conundrum that echoes their initial decision to throw in with Obama over his rivals in 2008: They feel loyal to Biden and hopeful about the potential of his campaign — but they are simultaneously drawn to the idea of backing a charismatic newcomer for president, like the relatively untested O’Rourke or Pete Buttigieg, who has recently sparked intrigue among several Obama fundraisers.

Some of the fundraisers are dealing with these conflicting feelings by planning to support multiple candidates throughout the Democratic primary, including Biden, while others are putting off the decision or planning to back a different candidate.

In text messages and conversations, supporters of Obama — some of whom were not significant party donors before becoming involved with the former president’s 2008 campaign — have also nudged each other to attend fundraisers and watch CNN town halls for up-and-comers.

“I like Joe Biden of course, I think he’s a great guy. He’s on the old side, but he’s not too old to do the job,” said Bill Eacho, an Obama fundraiser and former ambassador to Austria. Eacho said he’s “waiting to learn more about the candidates” before making a decision on who to support.

Bill Stetson — who raised more than half a million dollars for each of Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and aided the 2008 campaign on environmental issues— said he discusses the race and who to support every night after watching the news with his wife, Jane, a former national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. For now, he’s giving to multiple candidates, starting with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

“We’re very close to Joe Biden and we don’t know what he’s doing, and I like Beto, and I think a woman should be in the mix,” Stetson said. “We have to think about the very big picture, and we need to heal this country right now.”

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