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The 1st 2020 Race Is Underway: Scrambling for New York Donors

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© Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
The visits to campaign donors in New York are not limited to widely known national figures; Jason Kander, the 37-year old former Missouri secretary of state who lost a Senate race in 2016, has come here twice recently for fund-raising events.

By SHANE GOLDMACHER, The New York Times

Senator Elizabeth Warren has come calling as recently as April. Kamala Harris, the first-term senator of California, has made repeated visits, starting as early as her third month in office. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is also no stranger to the big-money donor world of New York; he was here in April — his third such visit in three months.

It will be months before Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris, Ms. Warren or most potential presidential aspirants will barnstorm across the farmlands of Iowa, dig into a low-country boil in South Carolina or field questions at a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire.

But with American presidential races requiring an ever-dizzying amount of money, an early, behind-the-scenes 2020 contest is already taking place: the New York money primary.

Over passed appetizers, intimate dinners and private board room meet-and-greets, a parade of nationally ambitious Democrats have been cycling through the offices and living rooms of the Manhattan money set.

Top New York donors and Democratic fund-raisers, in more than two dozen interviews, said that their phones rarely stop buzzing as candidates blitz one of the densest concentrations of Democratic wealth in the country.

Others calling and visiting include Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor; Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles; former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts; Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana; and the former Missouri Senate candidate, Jason Kander. Then there are the ambitious locals who already keep their donor lists close at hand: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

“When a candidate calls me to talk about ‘strategy and issues,’ you grab hold of your wallet for dear life,” said Robert Zimmerman, a prominent New York donor and a member of the Democratic National Committee who has been in touch with multiple prospective candidates.

For now, it is more about making connections than collecting cash, as few donors are committing at this stage. But to run a serious primary campaign, Democrats know they will have to amass tens of millions of dollars in the coming two years. Even if they got started as early as this July (and none of the top tier is expected to get into the race until after the midterms), a candidate would have to raise nearly $55,000 per day to construct a $30 million war chest by the end of 2019.

New York will be crucial to that task. More than $500 million came from the New York City area to political campaigns in the last full election — the most of any single metropolitan region in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. New York State had 15 of the top 50 ZIP codes for giving in the 2016 elections; no other state, even California, had half that many.

While similar donor dynamics are playing out in other affluent liberal enclaves, such as Silicon Valley and Hollywood, the donor chase is especially early and intense here because, for the first time since at least 2004, there is no prohibitive front-runner to corner the market on all that New York campaign cash, a role that Hillary Clinton had played in the last two open Democratic nominating contests.

In March, Mr. Biden was the special guest at a $10,000 per-person dinner benefiting House Democrats, at the home of the billionaire hedge fund manager James S. Chanos. In April, he attended a private fund-raising lunch at the home of a major Democratic donor, Dennis Mehiel, for his political action committee.

The night after Mr. Biden’s April visit, Ms. Warren mingled with donors at the Manhattan home of Mark Green, a former New York City public advocate, the official reason being her 2018 re-election bid (for which she has already stockpiled $15 million). A few months earlier, Meyer S. Frucher, the vice chairman of Nasdaq, hosted another fund-raising reception for Ms. Warren, according to people familiar with the gatherings.

Many donors said they gravitated toward politicians focused on the 2018 elections. Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, who opened her Murray Hill home to Mr. Biden for the February event, said she did so “because I see Joe Biden going to every corner of the country to get Democrats elected in 2018.”

Sarah Kovner, an influential Democratic fund-raiser in the city, said she ignores those too focused on the presidential campaign. “Fine — but not now, not from me. Not with Jon Tester in trouble and Claire McCaskill and Kyrsten Sinema in need,” she said, rattling off the names of Democrats in key Senate races. “That’s what I’m concentrating on.”

Almost every politician visiting New York can claim a purpose other than their own unspoken ambition — Mr. Biden for his PAC, Ms. Warren for her re-election.

Mr. McAuliffe, a prolific and voracious fund-raiser who was once the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been raising money for a new group focused on redistricting. But when Mr. McAuliffe recently met with donors at an event that the longtime Clinton adviser, Douglas J. Band, helped put together, his spiel included a half-hour on his successes as governor, according to two attendees, despite saying he was focused entirely on the midterms.

Ms. Harris, who was sworn into her Senate seat in January 2017, trekked to New York two months into her term to put on a free “thank you” event for her big New York contributors at the Regency Hotel in March 2017. That summer, Michael Kempner, a public-relations executive and top Democratic bundler, hosted an event for her at his spread in the Hamptons. She and Senator Booker attended another dinner with politically engaged black executives in Bridgehampton, N.Y. More recently, the fashion retailer Lauren Santo Domingo, who is married to a billionaire beer heir, organized an event for Ms. Harris’s PAC in February.

Mr. Patrick, now at Bain Capital, the private equity firm made famous for launching Mitt Romney’s business career, does not have a political entity he is raising money for, but he has still kept in touch with New York donors, including attending a donor dinner last spring and an event to mingle with contributors more recently at the Manhattan offices of Morgan Stanley, according to people familiar with the events.

The lone Democratic outlier from the money chase is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who bypassed large contributors in his 2016 presidential bid and still raised about $230 million, almost entirely from a torrent of small online donations — a model that many Democrats are trying to emulate.

But in an era when a single billionaire can, more or less, sustain a presidential candidate through a super PAC, the courtship of the donor class has anything but slowed.

There is a distinctive hierarchy to this donor dance: the bigger the contributor, the smaller the gathering. Billionaires and the biggest bundlers get almost limitless one-on-one time. The next tranche of mega-millionaires and political financiers get intimate dinners or office gatherings. Larger receptions are for standard-fare contributors.

Ronald Perelman, the billionaire donor, organized a fund-raiser for Ms. Harris’s PAC at the offices of his company, MacAndrews & Forbes, last December. Earlier in the year, Mr. Perelman, who contributes to both Republicans and Democrats, had another ambitious Californian, Mr. Garcetti, for a cocktail hour among donors at his estate in the Hamptons.

Mr. Garcetti, who is known to hand out his personal cellphone number to contributors and encourage them to stay in touch, was last in New York in March, a trip that included some private catch-up time with top contributors as he raises money for his federal PAC to help Democrats in the midterms.

Another politician whom donors mentioned as solicitous of New York is Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana. He pitches himself as the rare Democrat who can get elected and get along in a deep red state. He, too, has a federal PAC and has been hiring strategists with national experience.

Other younger politicians, who are far from national figures, are still seeking exposure to the moneyed class of Manhattan, including Pete Buttigieg, the 36-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., (four visits already in 2018) and Mr. Kander, the 37-year-old former Missouri secretary of state who lost a Senate race in 2016 (two recent visits included donor events).

As Stu Loeser, a veteran Democratic strategist in New York, put it, “The road to the White House runs down 57th Street.”

It is more than a figure of speech. In the 2016 cycle, two of the top five ZIP codes for political giving in America — 10022 and 10019, which span the length of 57th Street across Midtown Manhattan just south of Central Park — combined for $120 million in donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

New York contributors say there has not been this much activity since at least 2003, the last open Democratic contest without Mrs. Clinton.

While Mrs. Clinton was seen as holding a near-stranglehold on prominent New York donors, none of the current New York-area politicians considered possible 2020 candidates — Ms. Gillibrand, Mr. Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio or Mr. Booker — engender a similar sense of near-absolute loyalty.

“You can analogize this to a dating process in which there are still a lot of blind dates and first dates but not yet a lot of second dates or third dates,” said Steven Rattner, a Wall Street executive and veteran Democratic fund-raiser. “Let alone anyone going steady or getting married.”

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