Elizabeth Warren’s Fundraising Hypocrisy

She decries swanky fundraisers and big money donors while benefiting from both.

Ed Rendell, the Democratic former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania, has an op-ed in WaPo titled “I like Elizabeth Warren. Too bad she’s a hypocrite.” The essence of his provocative charge:

Shortly after announcing her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in February, Warren said she would shun high-dollar fundraising events. “That means no fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write the big checks,” Warren wrote in an email to supporters. 

Now, Warren has every right to make that pledge even if she had obtained significant contributions from donors in the past. Doing that didn’t make her a hypocrite. But there are two other reasons why the description applies.

First, because she transferred $10.4 million from her Senate reelection campaign to her presidential campaign fund. More than $6 million came in contributions of $1,000 and up, as the New York Times recently noted. The senator appears to be trying to have it both ways — get the political upside from eschewing donations from higher-level donors and running a grass-roots campaign, while at the same time using money obtained from those donors in 2018. 


Second, Warren attacked former vice president Joe Biden for holding a kickoff fundraiser in Philadelphia in April, which she criticized as “a swanky private fund-raiser for wealthy donors” in an email to supporters the next day. 

Well, I helped organize that affair, and I thought her attack was extremely hypocritical because nearly 20 of us who attended the Biden fundraiser had also given her $2,000 or more in 2018 at closed-door fundraisers in “swanky” locations. 

Warren didn’t seem to have any trouble taking our money in 2018, but suddenly we were power brokers and influence peddlers in 2019. The year before, we were wonderful. I co-chaired one of the events for the senator and received a glowing, handwritten thank-you letter from her for my hard work. 

There’s more to the piece, but that’s the gist of his argument.

Despite the fact that Rendell has a dog in the fight—he’s a supporter of Warren’s rival, Joe Biden, and a key Democratic fundraiser—his charge strikes me as fair. Warren is indeed having it both ways here.

But Warren’s garden-variety hypocrisy is less interesting than the nature of the game that inspired it. I think Warren sincerely believes there’s something unseemly, undemocratic even, about swanky fundraisers courting fatcats. But there’s essentially no way around it in the modern campaign environment unless you’re a media sensation like Donald Trump.

A few days back, the excellent NYT podcast The Daily had an episode title “The Sudden-Death Phase of the Democratic Primary.” It argued that, more than ever, this campaign cycle favored Washington insiders.

Whereas, in previous campaigns, successful but largely unknown governors like Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Howard Dean could introduce themselves to a national audience and compete for the Democratic nomination, they’re now at a decisive disadvantage. And Warren is illustrative of that: U.S. Senators, in particular, tend to have massive campaign war chests that they’re allowed to transfer to another federal campaign. Governors are unlikely to have that kind of money on hand and, even if they do, are legally prohibited from spending it on a federal election.

Which makes Warren’s game not only hypocritical but unsporting. Those without the ability to transfer millions of dollars donated to them by people for another race (and who, like Rendell, might actually prefer them in this race) have to have some way of catching up. And, unfortunately, the easiest way is to hold swanky fundraisers.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. drj says:

    This is bullshit.

    contributions of $1,000 and up

    had also given her $2,000 or more

    The problem Warren is decrying is obviously not people who max out on individual donations, but big contributions to PACs and other instances of dark money.

    $2,000 is peanuts. Nobody buys a senator or president for that kind of money.

    Rendell knows this. He is just carrying water for his boss.

  2. Timothy Watson says:

    @drj: Perhaps try reading the underlying source material?

    According to the rules she set out Monday, Warren will still accept checks of this size, but she will not hold the private dinners and events typically associated with big contributions. Her top staffers will still call big donors, but they will be barred from offering access to the senator as part of the pitch, according to a Warren aide.

    By Warren’s own definition, private fundraising dinners, even if for only $2,800, provide an inappropriate level of access to Senators and Presidential candidates, but she had no problem giving that level of access before and using that same money gained to run for President.

  3. Teve says:

    Jon Favreau
    My favorite part of Ed Rendell’s crazy op-ed is when he mounts a spirited defense on behalf of the horribly beleaguered…rich donors!

  4. drj says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    Perhaps try reading the underlying source material?

    The passage you cite is not in the Rendell piece.

    But if what you quote is rendered correctly, Warren is hypocritical.

    But are private fundraising dinners for $2,800 a plate even a thing? Normally, it’ll set you back a lot more than that.

    Also, this is what Warren herself had to say about it back in February (Why is this a thing now?). In any case, this doesn’t sound like she’s talking about $2,800 per plate events at all:

    That means no fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write the big checks. And when I thank the people giving to my campaign, it will not be based on the size of their donation. It means that wealthy donors won’t be able to purchase better seats or one-on-one time with me at our events. And it means I won’t be doing ‘call time,’ which is when candidates take hours to call wealthy donors to ask for their support.

    ETA: I suspect that a) the WaPo piece you cite suffers from sloppy wording; and b) Rendell is a tool.

  5. GHW says:

    A highway can have multiple lanes but only one is paved with titanium providing a smooth and swift but costly ride. Is a driver a hypocritical by taking the swifter lane while decrying its expense? I think not.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Breaking news: Elizabeth Warren is being a politician! Details at 11.

  7. Kit says:

    Unsporting? Good! Anyone who is too prim to elbow Uncle Joe out of the way simply has no chance of using the power of the presidency to maximum effect. Go, Elizabeth!

  8. drj says:

    Well, I got at least one suspicion confirmed: Rendell is a dishonest hack.

    He wrote:

    Second, Warren attacked former vice president Joe Biden for holding a kickoff fundraiser in Philadelphia in April, which she criticized as “a swanky private fund-raiser for wealthy donors” in an email to supporters the next day.

    Well, I helped organize that affair, and I thought her attack was extremely hypocritical because nearly 20 of us who attended the Biden fundraiser had also given her $2,000 or more in 2018 at closed-door fundraisers in “swanky” locations.

    About that Biden fundraiser:

    Thursday’s fundraiser will be rife with lobbyists — but not those registered in the federal system.

    The Biden for President host committee includes Kenneth Jarin, a lobbyist with Ballard Spahr who is registered to work on behalf of toll road operator Conduent and several health care interests. Jarin is a major donor to both parties and has given to political action committees controlled by former Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner.

    Another host of the Biden fundraiser is Alan Kessler, another lobbyist who works with the firm Duane Morris. Kessler is registered to lobby in Pennsylvania for American Airlines and the global information tech firm Unisys Corporation, among other clients.

    Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, another host of the event, is a senior adviser to the local lobbying operation at Dentons, a law firm with a vast government affairs operation. Nutter is also on the board of Conduent.

    The problem is obviously not individuals donating up to the personal limit.

  9. Teve says:

    Putin is paying lots of money to get Democrats to attack other Democrats. Since I’m not a Republican, I’m not going to do what Putin wants. So I’ma just say WARREN 2020!

  10. Jen says:

    In 2016, hundreds of Bernie Sanders’ supporters exceeded the federal campaign donation limits, mostly by making too many small donations.

    This is a dumb thing for Rendell to be staking a flag on, no matter how much water he’s choosing to carry for Biden. Is it the fact that people can write a single check for $2K, or is anyone who hits the limit a fat cat megadonor?

    Come ON. The primary + general individual contribution limits gets you exactly nowhere. In order to get the access Warren is criticizing you have to be a repeat maximum donor across many, many years and many, many committees.

    When I worked in Republican politics, we knew which people in the state had perpetually open checkbooks. There weren’t that many of them, but I’d estimate that they were likely contributing in excess of $100K+ a year across various committees and candidates.

  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This is fuqing hilarious.
    We have a guy in the White House who has been married three times, and cheated on every single one of those three women, who has been bankrupt 6 times and claims to be a business genius, who has a fake tan, fake teeth, and the worlds worst comb-over covering his bald head, who claims to be a great negotiator but is being played by leaders the world-over, who claims he is going to do something about gun-laws right up until until he hears from the NRA, and who…for every single statement he makes, you can find at least one example of him taking the opposite side…
    And somehow this story about Warren matters???
    This non-equivalent equivalency is exactly the kind of mealy-mouthed shit that gave us Trump.
    Grow the fuq up.

  12. Blue Galangal says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Thanks, Daryl & Darryl, for summing up so well how I felt when I saw this headline. I’m just so tired of no one holding Trump to account and everyone expecting Angels on Horseback on the Democratic side. You know what? We’re not turning away hurricane refugees, putting kids in cages, and refusing to pass common sense gun legislation. Pro life party my a**.

  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, in the English language we have these things called tenses with verbs. They signal whether your looking at the past or the future. When you say, “I’m not going to exceed the speed limit” you are NOT saying “I have never exceeded the speed limit”. You are simply asserting that you aren’t going to do it from the point of the statement forward in time.

    I suppose Rendell didn’t call her a liar, just a hypocrite. I suppose it’s like someone decides they are going to stop smoking, and says smoking is bad for you. Some will call them a hypocrite.

    To me, though, it signals how effective Warren is being. I saw a clip from a business show the other day describing how nervous business people are getting about the Warren candidacy.


  14. Liberal Capitalist says:

    This is not a story at all. It is attempting to find something, ANYTHING that could slow her down.

    Note that in the end of the article, the writer says:

    So, despite my feelings, Elizabeth, if you’re reading this and you win the Democratic nomination, I will be happy to support you and will campaign for you with all my heart.

    Why, because of course he will. Because of Trump.

    The more I look and listen, the more it makes sense for Warren in 2020.

    THIS should have been the article that was discussed today:
    ‘Why Are You Pissing In Our Face?’: Inside Warren’s War With the Obama Team

    tl;dr – Bailing out the banks may have saved us from a depression, but the bailout should have been Americans losing their homes and jobs. Obama and his team inadvertently set the stage for Trump. Warren tried to address that, but the administration had too many connections with corporations rather than the average Americans.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Rendell’s hit piece did some damage. To Biden.

    In his piece Rendell reminds us that Biden is an old-school hack who has benefitted from the kind of machine politics that are Rendell’s bread and butter. This will have zero effect on Warren’s support. It may well cost Biden.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    I never understand these ‘Al Gore flies. On airplanes!’ arguments. Like going to war with the army you’ve got, you play the game by the rules in place.

  17. al Ameda says:

    We go through this disingenuous kabuki every campaign season.

    It takes a lot of money to run a national campaign, and in some states like California a serious state wide effort to make personal appearances and buy media spots is very very expensive. It sounds good, sounds very ‘of the people’ to say that you will seek small contributions, but if I was a candidate, I would not make such a promise. I would make every effort to be ‘grassroots’ funded but, the reality is I might need a lot more than the ‘grassroots’ can deliver.

    Generally, I do not care where a candidate gets campaign monies as long as all of it is fully disclosed as to source.

  18. Kylopod says:

    I recently decided to search on Youtube for clips from the 1992 Democratic debates (the earliest ones I have any memory of–I was 15 at the time), and I got to one acerbic exchange between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown.

    There were a few things that stood out for me about it. First, Clinton came off looking very bad–shady and evasive. Second, the two looked like they were practically at the point of breaking out into a fistfight right there on the stage.

    It made the current intra-party squabbles look comparatively civil. The fact that Clinton went on to win the election makes me feel just a tad better about the current cycle. (And please, don’t give me that nonsense about Perot handing Clinton the election. That is a myth, no matter how stubbornly James Joyner here clings to it in the face of the overwhelming evidence against it.) There’s always the potential for criticisms brought up in the primaries to stick to the eventual nominee in the general election, but a great deal of it just washes over–especially arguments over who’s the “purest” of them all.

  19. Gustopher says:


    I’m an annoying moral scold, and even I don’t think there’s a lot here to get worked up about. Yes, her senate coffers have impure money and she’s transferred that into her presidential campaign. Woo.

    It’s not like she’s ever been a tool of big business. Her impure money is more pure than most politicians’ purest money.

  20. smintheus says:

    It’s interesting to find someone who pretends to take seriously Rendell’s self-presentation as an arbiter of political ethics. This is the guy who used to be chauffeured at 100 mph, and got the state of Pennsylvania in bed with organized crime while pushing casinos, and backed Bush’s plan to siphon Social Security funds into Wall Street’s hands, and destroyed large parts of his state by giving carte blanche to fracking. Certainly as Governor he was a master at transferring the public’s funds to whomever might benefit Ed Rendell.

  21. smintheus says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Yes, this is further insight into how willing Warren is to push hard even against nominal allies who are backsliding on serious issues she thinks need to be addressed seriously.

  22. Moosebreath says:


    “It’s interesting to find someone who pretends to take seriously Rendell’s self-presentation as an arbiter of political ethics.”

    This. I sometimes describe Rendell as having all of Bill Clinton’s flaws (including the sexual ones), with far less of Clinton’s virtues.

  23. Raoul says:

    It is my firm belief that no one cares about this issue.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    tl/dr: Politicians are venal and self-serving hypocrites.

    In other words: it’s yet another day ending in “y.”

  25. Henry D says:

    It’s ok to read this as a hit piece without becoming an apologist against its crux. Excuses don’t ameliorate vulnerabilities.

  26. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’d just like to remind people that Ed Rendell is the guy who once stole an entire art museum, so the fact he doesn’t like Elizabeth Warren is a point in favor of her candidacy in my mind.

  27. Timothy Watson says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Says a lot of Warren that she had no problem with someone like Rendell organizing a fundraising event for her previously then, right?

  28. An Interested Party says:

    Can someone point the truly pure presidential candidate? Thanks…

  29. Tyrell says:

    @Gustopher: The problem I have with Senator Warren is the seventh grade English teacher image, and the nails on chalkboard screeching voice.

  30. Liberal Capitalist says:


    You know, identifying that women have a “shrill” or “screeching” voice has been identified as being male-centric at best, misogynist at worst.

    Did a 7th grade English teacher scare you?

  31. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Did a 7th grade English teacher scare you?

    No, Incels are just intimidated by women…especially powerful women.

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