2020 Democrats Are Naming Their Fundraising ‘Bundlers’
When it comes to political fundraising, rich people are great. People who know a lot of rich people are even better.
Individual donors may write the checks, but a lot of influence and power accrues to the intermediaries who collect the money. Known as “bundlers,” they are the financial backbone of many modern campaigns.
“These are essentially fundraisers who aren’t on the payroll,” said Sarah Bryner, research director of the campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.
And because campaigns are not legally required to identify them, their influence can be hidden from the public.
The perennial issue of money in politics has received renewed scrutiny in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, with candidates sparring over the influence of big donors. In last week’s debate, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., for a private, ritzy fundraiser held in a wine cave. Buttigieg fired back at Warren, who had, prior to her presidential run, recruited some of the same big donors she now criticizes.
The top candidates have taken distinct fundraising approaches, with former Vice President Joe Biden relying primarily on traditional networks of big-dollar donors, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., eschewing fundraisers and building massive networks of small-dollar online donors, and Buttigieg doing both but leaning more on big donors.
Warren, in particular, has gone after her rivals for their reliance on major donors, pointing to the potential for conflicts of interest and saying candidates should not be beholden to the already powerful and wealthy.
There’s no requirement that campaigns identify their bundlers, despite their importance and influence. Bundlers often receive ambassadorships and other political appointments, as well as access to candidates and policy-making.
“They’re being very strategic because it’s a way to bolster their reputation,” Robin Kolodny, chair of Temple University’s political science department, said of bundlers. “Are people who try to get close to administrations involved in some kind of quid pro quo? The answer is yes. And that’s exactly what happens when you make a system where everything is based on private money.”
Buttigieg, who first disclosed some of his bundlers in April, released an updated list this month. Biden’s campaign said it would do the same, but didn’t say when.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., disclosed her bundlers before she dropped out of the race, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, struggling to raise money and gain in the polls, released his list of bundlers last week.
WHAT’S A BUNDLER?
Alan Kessler has considered himself a political fundraiser since 1988, when he worked on then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore’s presidential campaign. In the years since, Kessler, a top lawyer at Duane Morris in Philadelphia, has amassed a wide network of Democratic donors.
“Not until recently have they termed them ‘bundlers,’” Kessler said. “But it’s not different from what’s been done from the beginning of time — those who not just write checks but solicit people to make contributions at the presidential level.”
A bundler isn’t legally defined except in the case of lobbyists, but the generally accepted understanding is that it’s a person credited with collecting donations from others, often by hosting fundraising events.
They’re called upon in part because of the campaign finance limits all donors must adhere to: Individuals can give up to only $2,800 to a candidate in a federal election, so amassing the tens of millions of dollars necessary to run a competitive campaign means pulling in many donors.
A single candidate, even with paid campaign staff, could spend hours every day on the phone and at events meeting donors — many do — and still never reach enough people to get the necessary cash.
Bundlers aren’t necessarily the people with the most money — but rather the widest networks and the will to put them to work.
“I don’t have a spare $2,800 to throw around myself,” said Neil Makhija, 33, a public interest lawyer from Philadelphia who organized several fundraisers for candidates in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles and was named on Harris’ list of bundlers. “But my political involvement has grown from knocking on thousands of doors for Barack Obama, to running myself for the state house in 2016, to now, asking my supporters to stay engaged and contribute to great candidates.”
Not every candidate can emulate Sanders’ online fundraising machine, Makhija said: “That is true, especially for less glamorous races at the state and municipal level.”
WHY BUNDLERS ARE POWERFUL
Bundlers essentially have the roles of local ward leaders in classic political machines, Kolodny said. A ward leader has only a single vote, but has power because of the ability to influence family, friends, and neighbors.
Similarly, bundlers can “max out” personally only once, but their power comes from the ability to marshal networks of other donors.
The arrangement can, at times, help the person who gathers the harvest, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
“Say the campaign knows that John Smith got them $40,000 in hard money checks — so then that gives the bundler a little bit more access,” he said.
In addition, the bundler can act almost as a concierge for the donors themselves.
“The bundler can call and say, ‘I want you to do this for my friend Jim Smith,’ and Jim Smith is his friend because he gave him a check when he was bundling,” Rendell said.
Rendell, who backs Biden, described himself as “one of the most prolific fundraisers in the state,” but doesn’t count himself a bundler, because he doesn’t track how much he brings in for campaigns.
He decried the Democratic finger-pointing over who is accepting big donations, noting that Republican candidates haven’t always disclosed bundlers in the past, or, for the most part, opened fundraisers to the media. (George W. Bush and Mitt Romney identified their bundlers, but Donald Trump broke with bipartisan tradition in 2016 and is again not identifying them for 2020.)
Bundler disclosures follow no specific rules: Buttigieg and Harris identified bundlers collecting at least $25,000, while Booker named those who collected at least $50,000. Names are not independently verified and are sometimes added or removed without notice, Bryner said. Buttigieg’s latest list left off 20 major fundraisers.
Campaigns chase each other’s bundlers, and bundlers themselves hedge their bets, sometimes supporting multiple candidates.
“I see the same names over and over again,” Bryner said. “And this cycle you actually see the same names on multiple lists for active candidates, which is weird, but it’s about the relationship, not necessarily about the ideological consistency.”
©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.inquirer.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
In The News
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether a Federal Election Commission limit on the amount of post-election... Read More
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether a Federal Election Commission limit on the amount of post-election contributions campaigns can use to repay debts they owe to the candidates themselves violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The case stems from... Read More
WASHINGTON — The Federal Elections Commissions failed to act on an administrative complaint from the Campaign Legal Center in a... Read More
WASHINGTON — The Federal Elections Commissions failed to act on an administrative complaint from the Campaign Legal Center in a timely fashion and must now resolve the matter within the next 30 days, a federal court ruled Thursday. The ruling stems from a complaint the Campaign... Read More
WASHINGTON — Former Green Party candidate Jill Stein and her campaign committee, Jill Stein for President, are asking the U.S.... Read More
WASHINGTON — Former Green Party candidate Jill Stein and her campaign committee, Jill Stein for President, are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia to review a Federal Elections Commission order that she repay $175,272 in matching funds she received during the... Read More
WASHINGTON — Nine-term Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of lying to... Read More
WASHINGTON — Nine-term Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of lying to the FBI and concealing information from federal agents investigating campaign contributions illegally made to him by a Nigerian billionaire. The indictment stems from an FBI investigation... Read More
WASHINGTON (AP) — The campaign organization aiming to maintain Democratic control of the House in the 2022 midterm races raised... Read More
WASHINGTON (AP) — The campaign organization aiming to maintain Democratic control of the House in the 2022 midterm races raised $10 million last month, its best August haul ever during a year without a national election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says that nearly 250,000 grassroots... Read More
Rep. Robin Kelly can remain chairwoman of the Illinois Democratic Party, but must insulate herself from all fundraising for non... Read More
Rep. Robin Kelly can remain chairwoman of the Illinois Democratic Party, but must insulate herself from all fundraising for non federal candidates in the state, the Federal Election Commission ruled Thursday. Kelly, a member of Congress since 2013, is also prohibited from using her name and... Read More