Elizabeth Warren raised nearly $25 million last quarter, and she did it without ever once setting foot in a fancy living room in Bel Air or Brentwood.
Last week, she announced that if she is the Democratic nominee, she will continue to avoid high-dollar fundraisers in the general election. And on Tuesday, she went further, announcing that she would take no more than $200 from executives at tech companies, hedge funds and private equity firms.
Warren’s approach would rewrite the traditional rules of politics, which have long compelled candidates to spend much of their time schmoozing trial lawyers and financiers in the nation’s ritziest ZIP codes. But her latest announcements — accompanied by her surge in the polls — have raised alarms among some veteran Democratic donors, who worry she is setting the party up for failure in 2020.
“On the question of electability, there is huge and justifiable concern,” said Ken Solomon, the CEO of Tennis Channel and a top bundler for President Barack Obama. “She can say, ‘I’m not afraid,’ but we need to be.”
Democrats expect to be significantly outspent against President Donald Trump, who raised $125 million for his campaign and the Republican National Committee last quarter. Rufus Gifford, a former Obama finance director, worries that Warren’s approach will put the party in an even deeper hole.
“No one has ever run a presidential campaign doing something like this,” Gifford told Variety. “I think it’s far too great a risk when the stakes are this high. Money in politics is a threat. We need aggressive campaign finance reform. But a bigger threat is Donald Trump. This is not the time for a moral purity test.”
Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former speechwriter for ex-Vice President Joe Biden, noted that Warren has a proven ability to raise small-dollar money. But in the general election, he said she would have to do what is necessary to compete.
“You can’t unilaterally disarm, especially considering the war chest that Donald Trump is going to have. You can’t go in as Grenada against the United States,” Gifford said. “Elizabeth Warren has to figure out what is the best way to defeat Donald Trump, if she’s the nominee. If the best way is to get on the phone with somebody because you need that commercial time in Ohio, then that’s what you do.”
As of now, there is no “Stop Warren” movement among the Democratic donor class. And she has many admirers in Hollywood, a bastion of true-blue progressive politics. Even so, some are a little irked at the tenor of her rhetoric on political fundraising, which many see as a necessary evil at worst.
“It makes it sound like there’s something going on in these fundraisers that is somehow secret, or a window into some cabal. That’s not my experience,” said producer Michael Lombardo, who hosted a fundraiser for Biden last week. “The truth of the matter is the entertainment community happens to have a lot of people who happen to care passionately about our government and are generous in their support.”
Lombardo said he’s backing Biden because he’s “the only candidate who I see a path to victory next year.” But he said he and his husband, architect Sonny Ward, will support the Democratic nominee no matter who it is. He described himself as a fan of Warren, but said he wasn’t sure whether her stance on fundraisers would accomplish much.
“It makes a statement. It embraces a kind of populist notion,” he said. “At the same time, I’m not sure as a practical matter that it does what they’re pretending it does. … It’s the soft dollars. Money flowing into the national committee will continue to happen.”
Warren is borrowing her strategy from Sen. Bernie Sanders, who also raised $25 million in the third quarter without holding high-dollar fundraisers. Warren has gained steadily in the polls in recent weeks, and some polls show her in a virtual tie with Biden.
Much like Iowa caucus voters, Hollywood donors are used to being able to see presidential candidates up close, ask them questions and get a feel for them as people.
“Because Warren has not done those events, people don’t really know her as much as they would normally at this stage of the game,” said Donna Bojarsky, a Democratic consultant.
Warren has been to Los Angeles a few times this year. She held a rally for several thousand people at the Shrine Auditorium on Aug. 21. On Oct. 4, she appeared at an SEIU summit in downtown Los Angeles, where she addressed a large crowd of service workers. At a press conference, she was asked about her refusal to hold traditional fundraisers.
“Democracy is not a thing that can go by itself,” Warren said. “It can’t just be left to the wealthy and the corporate executives to make the pieces run, because the problem is they keep running all those pieces for themselves.”
Should she be the nominee, she has said that she will continue to hold fundraising events for the Democratic National Committee. Some are advising their friends that she will be flexible, allowing her to pivot to softer stances in the general election.
“I have been told by people that know her that she’s very smart, very savvy and also a committed capitalist,” Bojarsky said.
But Solomon worries that Warren’s views on economic issues will embolden wavering Trump supporters — who may not like him, but see his presidency as in their financial interests — to go out and raise money for him.
“The socialist thing is going to be a huge spark,” Solomon said. “They are going to rise up against her in mass outrage.”
Some Warren supporters argue that her uncompromising approach will create a sharp contrast in the general election. Alex Blagg, a writer and producer on the Comedy Central show “@midnight,” said Warren’s populist appeal would give Democrats a better shot against Trump than they had in 2016.
“There’s a rage across the left and right of the spectrum against people that are perceived as powerful and elite,” he said. “That is a very powerful mood and feeling to tap into. The more pure of a lightning rod that you can be to harness that, the better.”