WASHINGTON — Democrats hoping to use the governor’s mansion to launch a campaign for the White House are likely to run into a major hurdle: money, or rather, a lack thereof.
Of the current and former governors who are considering a presidential campaign — including John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington and Steve Bullock of Montana — none have the name recognition enjoyed by a pack of senators who are already in the race. They risk being further overshadowed if a heavyweight such as former Vice President Joe Biden jumps in, as he strongly suggested on Tuesday that he would.
The coming months will likely be an uphill battle for the governors. Although they have resumes full of executive experience, standing out could be difficult in a crowded Democratic field that already includes high-wattage names such as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of New York.
Without that name recognition, attracting small, online contributions, such as the ones fueling Sanders’ candidacy, could be difficult as could convincing big donors to invest.
“The traditional argument for electing a Democratic governor is they have proven records and appeal to independent voters. Those are all valid points,” said Craig Varoga, a veteran Democratic strategist who has worked for several governors who ran for president, including former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. “But you have to have enough money just to be able to show up in Iowa and New Hampshire. And traditional fundraising is going to be exceptionally difficult.”
That presents a challenge that’s likely to force governors to spend more time courting big donors, who have proven reluctant to cut checks due to the sheer number of candidates. But it could also cause political headaches at a time when the Democratic base is increasingly wary of the influence of wealthy financiers in politics.
Jennifer Granholm, a former Democratic governor of Michigan, said she’s not sure a governor can break through. It’s an office bound by convention and decorum at a time when candidates are harnessing viral moments to raise small contributions from the Democratic party’s base. In recent months, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke livestreamed a visit to the dentist and Warren drank beer during an online broadcast.
“Are Inslee and Hickenlooper willing to show people their closets or cooking or medical appointments on Instagram?” Granholm said. “Earning followers comes from creativity, authenticity, spontaneity. Governors may be disadvantaged by convention.”
Allies of the governors considering a presidential campaign privately acknowledge the fundraising challenges ahead. But they argue success in early voting states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, hinges on retail politics and actually meeting voters. Plus, they say, executive experience still counts. On a debate stage, the senators will talk about what they want to do, while governors can talk about what they’ve done ranging from expanding Medicaid to taking action against climate change.
Whether they make the stage is an open question, though.
The Democratic National Committee recently adopted qualification thresholds that require candidates to crack 1 percent in the polls or collect donations from at least 65,000 individuals, with at least 200 unique donors spread across at least 20 states.
There are also questions of whether they can amass the resources needed for a protracted campaign that could cost each candidate $50 million or more.
Warren, Sanders and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand each reported having about $10 million or more set aside at the end of last year, Federal Election Commission records show. On Monday, Warren swore off attending fundraisers with the donor class, saying she would instead rely on small-dollar contributions.
Others have hyped eye-popping fundraising figures from the hours and days after their campaign launch, including Sanders, who raised $10 million largely from small-dollar donors after announcing his candidacy last week.
Lauren Hitt, a Hickenlooper spokeswoman, said he has raised $1 million for his Giddy Up PAC and is working to line up commitments from donors in California and New York. This month, he raised $50,000 during a San Francisco fundraiser held by former Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb that was attended by 10 to 15 donors, she said.
Bullock, who had $203,000 in his Big Sky Values PAC at the end of the year, has been courting donors and is banking on a strong performance in the early voting state of Iowa for donations to start coming in.
Inslee is hoping his focus on climate change will win support from environmentalists. So far, he has courted donors in California and New York, though as of the end of last year his Vision PAC contained just $200,000, with most of the money coming from his native Washington state. He’s also built a lengthy email list through his years of climate activism that he hopes to use for fundraising. And a pro-Inslee PAC called Act Now on Climate registered with the FEC.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is also contemplating a campaign, would likely be an outlier. A longtime adviser to Bill Clinton, he formerly served as the head of the Democratic National Committee and has long been a political rainmaker. That will likely enable him to raise far more than the others, if he decides to run.
Still, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that likely won’t matter without support from small donors, a lesson he learned during his 2008 presidential run.
He posted a respectable $7 million early on. But he struggled to raise money from his New Mexico-centric fundraising base as Barack Obama, the first candidate to raise major money online, took off.
“The big donors, the big PACs are even less important now and this is why Beto O’Rourke and Sanders should be taken as serious candidates: their enormous ability to raise online money,” he said.
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