Dozens of donors enjoyed a white-tablecloth dinner, an open bar and sweeping views of the U.S. Capitol this month when Elizabeth Warren strode on stage to headline a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. The setting was similarly swanky in August, when Warren addressed party contributors at the ornate Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. And it's likely to be much the same in December, when Warren is slated to headline another party fundraiser in Boston.
The Massachusetts senator has become a leading Democratic presidential candidate in part because she has pledged to forgo events with high-dollar donors, which has resonated with progressives who believe wealthy donors have outsized political influence. But Warren has a notable exception for fundraisers that take in big money for her party, a practice she plans to continue if she becomes the Democratic nominee to take on President Donald Trump.
Warren is already under scrutiny for seeding her presidential campaign with money she raised while running for the Senate, when she spent millions of dollars on fundraisers and took money from large donors. While that's common practice, the money transfers and the fundraisers for the national party committee could undermine Warren's image as a relentless fighter for the middle class who would rather spend hours taking selfies with supporters than schmoozing with elite donors.
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"She's a great candidate," said Don Fowler, who ran the DNC for two years under President Bill Clinton and hasn't endorsed any of his party's White House hopefuls. "She's just off-step on this particular point."
Fowler and other Democratic leaders say Warren isn't being honest about her fundraising plans if she were to become the party's nominee. They say she can't tell voters she is personally shunning big-dollar fundraisers while simultaneously headlining state and national party events at which she would raise millions of dollars from major donors supporting her bid for the White House.
"What I hope she understands is that after a candidate becomes the nominee, the DNC is their campaign and their campaign is the DNC," said Rufus Gifford, Barack Obama's 2012 finance chairman. "There is not a distinction that you can draw."
Bernie Sanders, Warren's chief rival for the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party, also is shunning large-dollar fundraisers in the primary. He hasn't headlined a party fundraiser, but his campaign says he would attend such events in the general election as long as they are grassroots driven and open to low-dollar donors.
Warren's campaign said it hasn't made final decisions on how she would conduct party fundraisers as the nominee.
Raising money for the party will be an especially urgent task in 2020. Whoever wins the primary will inherit a party that is $7 million in debt and has been outraised almost 5-to-1 by Trump and the Republican National Committee, which pulled in more than $300 million this year alone.
Warren has struggled to explain how she would balance her opposition to big-dollar events against her plans to raise money for the party.
"I will help the party," Warren said while campaigning in South Carolina last weekend. "I am not going to ask Democrats to unilaterally disarm in the face of an onslaught of money."
She gave a different explanation weeks earlier in an interview with CBS.
"I will not be forced to make changes in how I raise money," she said while railing against politicians "going behind closed doors with bazillionaires and corporate executives and lobbyists and scooping up as much money as possible."
Warren campaign spokesman Chris Hayden says she's avoided special VIP receptions at DNC events, keeping with Warren's "no special access" for big donors pledge. He noted that her past fundraising bolstered Democratic candidates across the country. No decisions have been made, he said, about how she would handle large sums pouring into the party from fundraisers if she becomes the nominee.
So far, Warren's 2020 strategy of shunning donors appears to be working. She raised nearly $25 million during the third quarter and touts a grassroots operation that yielded a $26 average donation during that period. She's repeatedly slammed rivals including former Vice President Joe Biden for relying on big-dollar donors to fund his 2020 presidential campaign and reversing his past opposition to outside money backing his candidacy.
But as recently as last year, Warren spent considerable time and money cultivating relationships with the very same types of donors she now derides. Since her election to the Senate in 2012, Warren has spent more than $2.6 million holding fundraisers and used some of the proceeds to seed her presidential run, which she got off the ground with a $10.4 million transfer from her Senate campaign account, according to an analysis of records by The Associated Press.
Over the years, she spent more than $1.6 million on fundraising consulting, nearly $500,000 on catering for fundraisers and at least $67,000 renting out event spaces, the AP's analysis found. That includes $43,000 spent at the four-star Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Warren lives, $38,000 at the five-star Fairmount Copley Plaza Hotel and almost $20,000 at City Winery, both in nearby Boston.
Last year was one of Warren's top-spending years. She dropped $546,000 on fundraising while campaigning for reelection and laying the groundwork for her presidential run, records show. During that period she attended fundraisers hosted by Silicon Valley donor Karla Jurvetson, tech entrepreneur Stephen M. Silberstein, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Stephen Cozen, the head of Cozen O'Connor, a Philadelphia law firm that reported making $2.1 million in lobbying fees in 2018, records show.
Rendell, who has helped Biden raise money for his presidential campaign, said he co-chaired the Warren fundraiser while she sought Senate reelection last year and donated $4,500. He said Warren sent him a handwritten thank you note then but slammed him and other past donors after they attended an April fundraiser for Biden.
"She attacked us, and I think 22 of us had given the maximum to her the year before at a swanky party in a swanky restaurant," Rendell said. "We were called bundlers and access-seekers and all sorts of names by Elizabeth, including me. And I'm not a rich guy. For me, giving $4,500 is a lot of money."