WASHINGTON >> Pete Buttigieg is suddenly the hottest ticket for Democratic donors in the 2020 presidential contest.
Entertainment moguls are fighting over who will host Hollywood fundraisers for the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Democratic donors are showering him with praise. And he has been repeatedly selling out fundraisers across the U.S.
Whether the gay former military officer and Rhodes scholar will be able to capitalize on his improbable star turn and build out a campaign with staying power remains to be seen.
What is indisputable, however, is that donors are clamoring for more. That could help thaw a Democratic money game that’s been largely frozen during the early months of the primary, with many major financiers waiting for the crowded field to thin.
“He absolutely must be part of the conversation. I want to see him in the top tier,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, a top Hillary Clinton donor who recently held an event for Buttigieg at a San Francisco yacht club despite previously announcing her support for Sen. Kamala Harris of California. “I’m very much supporting Kamala. I also am extremely impressed with Mayor Pete.”
In the massive Democratic fundraising world of Hollywood, plans for an upcoming visit started a tug-of-war between major entertainment industry figures, including movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, over who would get to host an upcoming Buttigieg fundraiser. The dispute was described by two people with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Buttigieg also counts among his supporters Laurie David, the producer of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” who was formerly married to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Larry David. Other prominent donors include “West Wing” star Bradley Whitford, “Deadpool” actor Ryan Reynolds and “This Is Us” actress Mandy Moore, whose Twitter feed is dominated by posts about Buttigieg.
“Los Angeles is excited to see and hear from Mayor Pete,” said Marie Lloyd, a political consultant who works for some Hollywood megadonors, including Katzenberg. “I imagine he will have a pretty warm reception here. But it’s up to him if that excitement remains.”
Today, Buttigieg is being feted at a sold-out fundraiser held by Andrew Schapiro, a Chicago attorney who previously held an event for Beto O’Rourke during the former Texas congressman’s run for Senate. Another Chicago fundraiser is being planned for May 16 that will be hosted by some of former President Barack Obama’s top bundlers, including De Gray and John Atkinson, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press.
“From a fundraising standpoint, it reminds me of early Obama: People are coming to us and asking, ‘Can I participate? Can I come?’” said Schapiro, who was also Obama’s ambassador to the Czech Republic. “Most of the time when you’re doing a fundraiser, it’s the other way around, and you have to work to get people to show up.”
Many 2020 contenders so far have been reticent to discuss their fundraising from big-dollar donors amid a fierce and ongoing intraparty debate over the role that big money plays in politics. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has gone so far as to rule out attending major fundraisers and has instead said she will rely on grassroots donors.
Buttigieg has taken a different tack. His campaign has released a list of major bundlers, a term used to describe donors who raise large sums of money for candidates by hosting events and urging their friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues to give. It’s a who’s who of Democratic donors, including members of the Pohlad family, who own the Minnesota Twins, filmmaker Jill Goldman and top Obama donors like hedge fund manager Orin Kramer. Also among his bundlers is Steven Elmendorf, a lobbyist whose recent clients include BP America, Facebook and the airlines industry, according to federal disclosures.
But Buttigieg has shown an ability to raise from the party’s grassroots base, too, pulling in about 64% of his first quarter fundraising haul from donors who gave less than $200, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
He’s also started to draw checks from donors who have given to other candidates, another sign of the level of interest in Buttigieg.
Among 2020 candidates, Buttigieg has received the second highest number of checks from donors who have given to multiple candidates, FEC data shows. Only Harris, who has been on the national political scene longer, has drawn more donors who have cut checks to multiple candidates, records show.
Buttigieg’s events aren’t limited to people able to shell out thousands of dollars. His campaign has been holding “grassroots fundraisers,” with tickets that start at $25, in cities including New York and Washington, D.C.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson introduced Buttigieg at his first grassroots fundraiser in Chelsea last month. Johnson said Buttigieg’s staff and volunteers seemed as surprised as he was at the turnout for the event, which was scheduled at 5 p.m. on a Friday.
Johnson expected 60 or 70 people. When he and Buttigieg walked upstairs to the event, they found the former dance club packed with around 250.
“We had to wade our way through this enormous crowd,” Johnson said. Later that night, Johnson posted a photo on Twitter and Instagram of himself and Buttigieg at the event and was instantly “bombarded” by people upset that they didn’t know about the event and asking how they could attend the next one.
“There’s a real hunger to see him in New York,” Johnson said.
Buttigieg sold out another grassroots fundraiser at Brooklyn Bowl last week. Similar events are planned next month in San Francisco and at The Abbey, a large and well-known gay nightclub in West Hollywood.
Buttigieg has also drawn a lot of attention from LGBT donors.
“He’s certainly spoken in a very, very strong way to the Democratic progressive donor base,” said Rufus Gifford, Obama’s former finance director, who is gay. “The fact that the hottest candidate on the Democratic side is an openly gay married man? It’s an amazing thing for me and my community.”