Elizabeth Warren’s Fundraising Restrictions Apply to the Primary

Elizabeth Warren has announced a bold move to distance her campaign from the influence of large donors during the 2020 Democratic primary.

The Democratic primary is the time when we get to make choices — and make a difference. Democrats deserve a chance to choose a nominee whose time is not for sale to people who can write big checks.

So I’ve made a decision: My presidential primary campaign will be run on the principle of equal access for anybody who joins it.

That means no fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write the big checks. And when I thank the people giving to my campaign, it will not be based on the size of their donation. It means that wealthy donors won’t be able to purchase better seats or one-on-one time with me at our events. And it means I won’t be doing “call time,” which is when candidates take hours to call wealthy donors to ask for their support.

The reason this is important is because it gets at one of the more insidious ways that big donors influence a candidate: by gaining access.

It’s been estimated that up to 70% of a congressional candidate’s time is spent with potential wealthy donors — trying to get them to give, or as a reward for doing so. It’s safe to assume that goes for presidential campaigns too, and presidential donors are disproportionately white, male, and wealthy. Look at the 2016 election: The electorate was more diverse than ever, and yet 91% of donors were white. Only three percent of Americans were millionaires, but 17% of donors were. The wealthy and well-connected have been taught by politicians to expect that more money buys more access — they’ve done it for generations, and it too often closes out women and communities of color. We have to do things differently.

It is important to recognize that, at this point, Warren is being clear that these fundraising restrictions will affect her “presidential primary campaign.” To understand why, it is helpful to keep current campaign finance laws in mind. Here is a list of how much an individual can donate:

  • To a candidate: $2,800
  • To a state, local or district party committee: $10,000
  • To a national party committee: $35,500

What many people learned from the Donna Brazile revelations following the 2016 election is that it is standard procedure for a presidential nominee to coordinate fundraising with the Democratic National Committee and that a large share of those funds are dispersed to state parties. In other words, if handled appropriately, those dollars are used to build a 50-state strategy.

During the general election, big money events are usually planned to elicit contributions from individuals who are able to max out and give $38,300—with $2,800 going directly to the candidate’s campaign and the remainder to the DNC.

The dilemma Warren will face if she becomes the nominee is whether she will continue to reject that kind of access and how that affects state parties, as well as the down-ballot candidates they support. She seems to have recognized that issue by announcing that these restrictions will apply during the primary.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.