Senator Cory Booker spun through a San Francisco fund-raiser hosted on Friday afternoon by high-tech titans and wealthy venture capitalists, including the investor Ron Conway. That evening, in New York, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand gathered donations at the Upper West Side home of Matthew Mallow, a vice chairman of the investment giant BlackRock.
And on Sunday night, Senator Kamala Harris is set to mingle with Hollywood luminaries at the home of the president of the MGM Motion Picture Group, Jonathan Glickman.
The race for cash in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is reaching a frenetic peak this weekend with a dozen fund-raisers on both coasts, as presidential hopefuls rush to vacuum up $2,800 checks — the maximum amount individuals can give for the primary by law — before the first quarterly fund-raising deadline of the campaign at midnight on Sunday.
But the candidates don’t want to discuss any of this.
They are instead trying to pull off a delicate balancing act. Publicly, the 2020 hopefuls are all about attracting low-dollar donors, trying to prove their grass-roots appeal and populist bona fides by touting large numbers of small donations — an ascendant force in Democratic politics. But privately, most Democrats also badly need the big checks and are still going behind closed doors to woo the wealthy, whose money is critical to pay for campaign staff, travel and advertising.
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As a result, a traditional part of presidential races early on — candidates trumpeting big-money and well-connected contributors as a show of political strength — has gone virtually underground, the invisible primary turning truly invisible. The jockeying for major donors remains as intense as ever, but the usual campaign announcements of powerhouse finance committees and boldfaced bundler lists have all but disappeared. Even some online R.S.V.P. pages for fund-raisers don’t identify the wealthy backers anymore.
Amy Dacey, the former chief executive officer of the Democratic National Committee, said the donor dynamics this cycle are “fundamentally different” than before.
“Candidates talk more about how many different donors they have and how many states they’re in,” she said. “It’s more about the donor amounts than the dollar amounts.” But, Ms. Dacey added of big donors, “They still need them.”
Two prominent candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have disavowed the traditional money circuit entirely — a safe bet for Mr. Sanders, whose online donor network amply funded his 2016 run, but a far riskier gambit for Ms. Warren, who has a far smaller base of low-dollar contributors.
Candidates emailed invitations seeking large donations ahead of the first quarter of fundraising ending on Sunday.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, began calling some donors to seek support before he entered the race this month, but he is expected to lean heavily on a small-donor network that netted more than 100,000 contributions and $6.1 million in his first 24 hours. He has held no fund-raisers so far and has none planned yet in the future, according to his campaign.
Unlike in 2016, when the Democratic donor class rallied to Hillary Clinton, or 2008, when givers lined up with Mrs. Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, many of the party’s wealthiest figures remain firmly on the sidelines, serving as perhaps the biggest check on the role of big money in 2020 to date.
That has given an advantage to Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Sanders, who are banking on small donations. Those two, plus Ms. Harris, who has a strong small-donor network and has been aggressively courting larger contributors, are widely expected to raise the most in the first quarter.
Several 2020 hopefuls have spent recent weeks canvassing the country, from Dallas to Miami, Chicago to Los Angeles, to raise the money needed in a crowded primary that is expected to easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
At fund-raising events, attendees say, most 2020 candidates typically are delivering more intimate versions of their stump speeches, pitching their vision for the country along with a heavy dosage on their political viability and pathway to the presidency, amid caterers circulating with drinks and snacks.
Last Tuesday, Ms. Harris was in the tony Washington neighborhood of Kalorama at an event where hosts were asked to raise at least $10,000 (although the price points were not listed on the front of at least one version of the emailed invitation). The Saturday before that, Mr. Booker was feted at the home of Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey as the singer Jon Bon Jovi circulated in the crowd ahead of a three-course dinner that pulled in $300,000, according to a person familiar with the event. And before that, Senator Amy Klobuchar was in Chicago asking for money at the home of a former Goldman Sachs banker who later served as ambassador to Canada, Bruce A. Heyman.
In between, donors are hearing from the candidates by phone. A lot.
“When I see a 202 number these days, I don’t usually answer it,” said Amber Mostyn, a Houston-based attorney and prominent Democratic fund-raiser, joking about the Washington area code and the number of candidates who have reached out for help.
According to several donors as well as invitations obtained by The New York Times, four senators — Mr. Booker, Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Harris and Ms. Klobuchar — have been particularly aggressive on the national donor circuit. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have been making calls and organizing events, as well.
“It takes a lot of time away from what we should be doing,” said John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman and businessman running for president, who is mostly avoiding the money chase by self-funding his campaign. “I guess you’d call it a necessary evil.”
Schedules are often constructed, at least in part, around raising money. So while a recent trip by Ms. Harris to Texas drew headlines for her decision to rally in the home state of Mr. O’Rourke, the visit was also about raising money, with a fund-raiser at the Dallas home of Jill Louis, a partner in the law firm K&L Gates. (Ms. Louis is also a trustee of Howard University, Ms. Harris’s alma mater.)
Some big donors who remain unaligned are waiting for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Some are holding out for the field to thin. Others are writing checks to a number of contenders without committing exclusively for any one of them.
Mitchell Berger, a longtime South Florida fund-raiser and self-described political “dinosaur,” who fondly recalls his work on behalf of a young Al Gore in 1987, rattled off the names of five candidates who had called him. But Mr. Berger said that, while he had given to some, he had not yet hosted events or bundled contributions for anyone because he wants to see how the race will unfold.
In April, Steven Rattner and Blair Effron, two prominent donors in New York, are planning a dinner for unaligned donors to discuss how and when to engage in a primary contest that is more unpredictable than any in a generation.
“It’s completely different than 2016,” Henry R. Munoz III, the Democratic National Committee finance chair and a longtime Democratic donor, said of the lack of urgency among fund-raisers this year. He added: “Most of my donors are enjoying getting to know the candidates and being courted a little bit.”
Some big names have taken sides, according to people familiar with their activities. Laurie Tisch, a wealthy philanthropist, is supporting Mr. Booker and recently held an event for him in New York. Naomi Aberly, the former chairwoman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of American board, is raising money for Ms. Gillibrand and organized a Texas fund-raiser for her already. Wayne Jordan and Quinn Delaney, an influential political couple in Oakland, are backing Ms. Harris.
Ms. Warren has essentially abandoned the pursuit of such donors, even though some have raised big sums for her in the past.
“This is our chance to run a grass-roots movement, not just to go around the country scooping up as much money as we can,” Ms. Warren said in an interview.
But for those Democrats who are seeking cash in big chunks, Hollywood has been, as ever, a deep well.
On one night in mid-March, Ms. Harris was hosted at the home of J.J. Abrams, the director of recent “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” movies, with a who’s who list of co-hosts. Across town, Ms. Klobuchar was schmoozing with donors at the home of Jay Sures, the co-president of the United Talent Agency, with co-hosts including the talent agent Peter Benedek and the television producer Marcy Carsey, a longtime Democratic donor.
Lawyers have long been another mainstay of the Democratic donor circuit. Ms. Gillibrand got her start in politics raising money while working as a Manhattan attorney; she has three fund-raisers just this weekend at the homes of law firm partners, two of whom she once worked with.
One of Ms. Gillibrand’s other events, on Sunday, has stirred some criticism; it is at the home of Sally Susman, a senior executive with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Though Ms. Susman is a longtime friend of Ms. Gillibrand’s, the event has served as a cautionary tale of the potential downsides of fund-raising with industry executives.
Still, many veterans of Democratic fund-raising believe that the eventual nominee will have to marry a robust network of small-dollar online givers with a high-dollar fund-raising operation in order to both claim the nomination and defeat President Trump.
Notably, Ms. Warren left open the possibility of attending fund-raisers again, should she become the nominee. “I do not believe in unilateral disarmament,” she said of running against Republicans.
Julianna Smoot, who ran Mr. Obama’s 2008 finance operation, recalled that the former president raised considerable grass-roots money but also spent hours on the phone building a team of bundlers.
“He did a lot of max-out, traditional fund-raising,” she said. “You have to have an integrated approach.”