Elizabeth Warren Pledges [Something, Something] Wealthy Donors

The populist Democrat won't be hosting fundraising dinners. Until the general election campaign, at least.

CNN Politics (“Elizabeth Warren’s new promise: No fundraisers, phone calls with wealthy donors“):

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is laying down a new rule for her presidential campaign: No fundraisers, dinners, receptions or phone calls with wealthy donors.

Warren’s bid for the White House has been defined since its start by themes of fighting corruption and money in politics. The Massachusetts Democrat took that to the next level on Monday, blasting out an email to supporters vowing to forgo any “fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write big checks,” as well as phone calls to wealthy donors.

“For every time you see a presidential candidate talking with voters at a town hall, rally, or local diner, those same candidates are spending three or four or five times as long with wealthy donors — on the phone, or in conference rooms at hedge fund offices, or at fancy receptions and intimate dinners — all behind closed doors,” Warren wrote. “When I thank the people giving to my campaign, it will not be based on the size of their donation.”

She’s not wrong. Our electoral system, where candidates spend months—or even years—campaigning to win primaries followed by a general election, requires all but the most well-known or well-heeled candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time raising money. Quite naturally, those who give the most expect something for their contributions. And that something is, at the very least, access to the candidate when they take office.

Warren’s announcement Monday is an implicit challenge to — and perhaps even criticism of — some of her competitors in the Democratic field who have courted big-dollar donors and bundlers.

Okay. So, how is Warren going to be different?

The Warren campaign has not held a single fundraiser since New Year’s Eve when Warren launched her presidential exploratory committee, Warren aides confirmed to CNN.

The time that Warren and her staff can save by skipping glitzy fundraisers and call times with deep-pocketed donors, they say, is time they are devoting to more organizing events, town halls, and calls to grassroots supporters and small-dollar donors. In just under two months, Warren has traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, California, Georgia and Puerto Rico, and has clocked in more than 20 campaign events.

Okay. But all of this traveling is going to be expensive. How does she intend to pay for it?

Warren has already disavowed accepting any PAC money and donations from federal lobbyists and has pressured others Democratic candidates to do the same.

A fundraising email last week said Warren is “not taking any contributions from PACs or federal lobbyists, and she’s not spending her time cozying up to wealthy donors who can write big checks,” and added for emphasis: “You can’t say that about all the other candidates in this race.”

Right. Still, all of this traveling is going to be expensive. How does she intend to pay for it? Apparently, grassroots something-or-other.

Oh, and it turns out that she’s only going to be pure on this front until she’s the nominee:

Warren’s announcement on Monday also highlights her campaign’s emphasis on building a grassroots movement as a longer-term investment, as the senator hopes to eventually take on President Donald Trump next November.

“By then we’ll be up against a Republican machine that will be hell-bent on keeping the White House,” Warren wrote. “They will have PACs and Super PACs and too many special interest groups to count, and we will do what is necessary to match them financially. That means investing—starting now — in each and every one of our state parties, and in our national party too.”

In the world of sports journalism, there’s an absurd game every year with regard to free agent players and, especially, in-demand coaches: reporters will ask if the player/coach is interested in team such-and-such. The player/coach will vow that they have had no discussions with team such-and-such. Eventually, said player/coach will land with one of the team such-and-suches that they denied having had discussions with. How? Well, it turns out that their agent, not them, had those discussions.

I strongly suspect Warren is playing that game here.

I take her at her word that she’ll not be going to fundraising dinners or taking PAC money during the primaries. But I’m guessing that their will nonetheless be fundraising dinners for Warren. And maybe she’ll also eschew personally making phone calls to wealthy donors. But note that she hasn’t said she’ll reject donations from wealthy donors. One strongly suspects someone on her campaign will be making the calls, not her.

Further, if she winds up the nominee and starts rubbing elbows with plutocrats from May to November of 2020, it’s not obvious how having refrained from doing so from February 2019 through April 2020 will change the equation.

Again, Warren is pointing to a legitimate problem. And there’s some shrewdness in a relatively well-known candidate announcing restrictions that would be easier for her to live with than most of her primary opponents. But it’s not obvious that she’s proposing anything that would actually remediate the problem to which she’s pointing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think your cynicism is misplaced when it comes to Warren. I think she’s the real deal and will do what she’s promised she’ll do. It’s not nothing that she’s blowing off the obligatory toadying of rich donors. Donors interested in good government don’t need their asses kissed.

    I gave some money to candidates in the 2012 cycle and one called me up to ask me what I wanted him to do if he were elected. I said, “I want you to be a good Congressman.” That was Adam Schiff who has indeed been a good Congressman, which is all I needed him to be.

    As for a long-term, legislative fix, do you really doubt that if Warren was elected she’d move to limit money in politics? I don’t.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think she’s sincere about leveling the playing field, although I’m dubious about the particulars. For example, a NYT report on the pledge notes,

    For her 2018 Senate re-election campaign, Warren did take $351,172 in PAC money, with $161,775 from labor organizations and $176,897 from ideological and single-issue groups. Contributions from such sources wouldn’t be considered corporate PAC money, so she still could accept those funds without breaking her promise.

    That strikes me, at best, as splitting hairs. As to

    As for a long-term, legislative fix, do you really doubt that if Warren was elected she’d move to limit money in politics? I don’t.

    We’ve had a more-or-less bipartisan effort to tighten campaign financing rules going back to 1974. Thus far, they’ve all wound up being circumvented—creating such things as PACs, SuperPACs, and the like get around them. And there’s also Citizens United.

    Honestly, I think the solution is in closing the revolving door and more transparency. (Some of which Warren is indeed advocating.)

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    The wealthy and interests who want to give to Warren, will. And she’ll pocket the donations. It will occur at an arms length and the donors ability to call in chits will be diminished. At least she won’t have to say we needed to X or our donors will kill us.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @James Joyner: This perception problem is motivating her fundraising announcement. Judging from the email I received last week begging for additional donations, she’s getting crushed in the money race and is attempting to shore up her anti-big donor cred.

    The New York Times is reporting Sanders has raised more than $10 million in the last seven days, 39% of which appear to come from donors who never contributed to him before. Warren’s bet she could successfully appeal to a subset of progressives turned off by Sanders’ socialist tag is looking like a mistake. There may not even be such a subset.

    I donate to both candidates but it appears that is an outlier.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Warren has 11 million dollars leftover from her Senatorial runs. She’s betting that taking it to the people will bring in enough cash to get her through the primaries. I don’t think Bernie is her biggest problem in that regard, I suspect Kamala Harris is – she may be tying up the California (Silicon Valley, SF, Hollywood) money.