The behind-the-scenes competition for Wall Street money in the 2020 presidential race is reaching a fevered peak this week as no less than nine Democrats are holding New York fund-raisers in a span of nine days, racing ahead of a June 30 filing deadline when they must disclose their latest financial hauls.
With millions of dollars on the line, top New York donors are already beginning to pick favorites, and three candidates are generating most of the buzz: former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
It is, at first blush, an unusual grouping, considering that the mayor of New York City (Bill de Blasio), the state’s junior senator (Kirsten Gillibrand) and a neighboring senator with deep ties to New York’s elite (Cory Booker of New Jersey) are all in the race and vying for their money.
Interviews with two dozen top contributors, fund-raisers and political advisers on Wall Street and beyond revealed that while many are still hedging their bets, those who care most about picking a winner are gravitating toward Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris, while donors are swooning over Mr. Buttigieg enough to open their wallets and bundling networks for him. These dynamics raise the prospect of growing financial advantages for some candidates and closed doors for others.
“There is going to be a real income inequality,” Steven Rattner, a Wall Street executive and Democratic donor, said of the coming fund-raising results for the second quarter, which covers April through June. “You are going to see a big separation between the rich and the poor.”
This is an especially important moment for Mr. Biden: He will soon say how much money he has raised since entering the race on April 25 — the first such disclosure of his campaign — and his team knows the reinforcing power of a big haul to cement his status as the Democratic front-runner. The pressure is intense on other candidates to demonstrate momentum among big and small donors alike, with the aim of raising more money in the spring than the winter, when Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Ms. Harris, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Mr. Buttigieg took in the most.
Not everyone is chasing Wall Street cash: Two candidates in the top tier of polls, Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have railed against the financial industry and opted against the kind of fancy fund-raisers with catering and $2,800 admission prices that lubricate the donor industry.
Still, in New York, the supply and demand is so strong that there are fund-raisers almost daily from morning until night.
Hamilton E. James, the executive vice chairman of Blackstone and a top fund-raiser, hosted Mr. Buttigieg at his home on Thursday. The short-selling hedge fund manager James Chanos will hold an event for Mr. Biden on Monday. And on Tuesday, Marc Lasry, the hedge fund manager and co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, is gathering checks for Ms. Harris. Co-hosts of that event include Blair W. Effron, an investment bank co-founder and an influential Democratic financier, and Ray McGuire, vice chairman of Citigroup.
Among those spreading the money around is Brad Karp, the chairman of the Paul, Weiss law firm and a top attorney for Wall Street institutions. He is hosting Mr. Biden for a reception at 9 a.m. on Tuesday; he is a co-host for a “lawyer’s lunch” for Ms. Harris that same day, according to invitations obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Karp, who donated to Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Booker in the first quarter, did not respond to a request for comment.
The momentum of big money in New York toward Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris is mirrored in contributor circles nationally, according to donors and campaign advisers, as well as in poll results: The trio is usually among the top five candidates in early primary states and national surveys.
“Those are the three,” said Julianna Smoot, who was national finance director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and remains plugged into the donor community.
Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris have aimed to blend aggressive large- and small-money operations, much as Mr. Obama’s campaigns successfully did, though New York’s business-minded donors described different factors pulling them toward each candidate.
They are attracted to Mr. Biden’s ideological moderation and his seeming chances of victory over President Trump in 2020; they are inspired by Mr. Buttigieg’s charisma and intellect; and they are drawn to Ms. Harris’s potential as a possible primary victor even as she now trails in the polls, in addition to her potential to reassemble the kind of winning multiethnic electoral coalition that elected Mr. Obama twice.
“Businesspeople are first of all pragmatists,” said Kathryn Wylde, who heads the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit whose board includes many of the city’s biggest business leaders. “They’re going to support the most moderate Democrats they think have a chance to win.”
Mr. Biden made explicit at a fund-raiser last Monday in Washington that he does not plan to demonize the financial industry like some rivals have, saying that “Wall Street and significant bankers” can “be positive influences in the country.” (As a senator for Delaware, Mr. Biden was regarded as an ally of financial institutions in the state, such as the credit card industry.)
Donors described various doubts about even their favored candidates: Mr. Biden’s age, say, or Mr. Buttigieg’s inexperience, or whether Ms. Harris’s political skills will play on the biggest stage.
“If you could roll all three of them into a single candidate,” Ms. Smoot said, “you’d have the perfect candidate.”
One of the most surprising developments of the 2020 race is how quickly Mr. Buttigieg, a virtual unknown only a few months ago, has vaulted into competition with Mr. Biden and other leading candidates for top party donors in New York and elsewhere.
Mr. Buttigieg is expected to post among the most robust second-quarter fund-raising figures. Even a donor who recently put together an event for one of Mr. Buttigieg’s rivals said that, these days, “the easiest event to sell out is a Buttigieg event.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s freshness has proved an advantage on the donor circuit: After he leapt in the polls this spring, contributors have jumped at the chance to pay $1,000 or more to size him up in person. A Harvard graduate and veteran of the McKinsey consultancy, Mr. Buttigieg is fluent in the language of elite New York circles, helping him transcend his initial base of donors in the gay community.
“Everyone who has seen him in the flesh thinks he’s fantastic,” said Mr. Rattner, who attended a recent Buttigieg event and has donated to other 2020 candidates.
Mr. Buttigieg has hired a full-time professional New York fund-raiser, even though there may be limits to his New York fund-raising: Regulatory rules prevent certain Wall Street employees with public pension business from donating to city or state officials, like a sitting mayor. So far, Mr. Biden has not hired a full-time New York fund-raiser.
Mr. Biden could get a boost in New York from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is expected to introduce the former vice president at Monday’s event, if he eventually lines up his formidable fund-raising muscle behind Mr. Biden. Mr. Cuomo has raised more than $100 million for his own campaigns; several of Mr. Biden’s co-hosts are longtime Cuomo backers.
Though Ms. Gillibrand is the home-state senator, most of the talk about her in New York donor circles has been how little talk there is about her. Some New York donors said they donated to Ms. Gillibrand, but only out of loyalty or obligation.
“I don’t think she’s gotten much traction in New York State. I think everybody loves her as a senator but is not excited about her being president,” said Mitch Draizin, a former fund-raiser for Mr. Obama, who made his money in the financial industry and is supporting Mr. Biden.
Before Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg gained momentum, Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Booker had raised the most money in New York ($1.3 million and $1.2 million, respectively) from those who gave at least $200 in the first quarter.
But their edge over Ms. Harris (who raised $911,000 in New York in the first quarter) was small compared with Ms. Harris’s dominance in California. There, she raised $4.3 million last quarter; no other Democrat raised $900,000, records show.
Mr. Booker, a fixture on the New York donor circuit for nearly two decades, has some key backers, including Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Goldman Sachs alum, and Donald Sussman, the billionaire hedge funder who is a top Democratic financier. Mr. Sussman’s daughter Carolyn Tisch Blodgett is hosting a fund-raiser for Mr. Booker on Wednesday; he had another Wall Street-linked event last week.
But Mr. Booker and Ms. Gillibrand are suffering in part from their low standing in the polls. Wall Street titans, in particular, have made their money wagering on winners.
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, for instance, is often mentioned as a favorite of New York’s donor class, and he has Jill Straus, a connected New York fund-raising consultant, helping him. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana has impressed, too. Few described taking them seriously, even as some contributed to them.
Another candidate with a foothold in the finance sector is Mr. O’Rourke, who was hosted on Wednesday at the New York home of Mark Gallogly, a major Wall Street fund-raiser.
David Adelman, who co-hosted that event and is an attorney who represents the financial industry, said he felt a “generational pull” and found Mr. O’Rourke inspiring: “It is important to rotate the crops.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s rise appears to have come, in particular, at Mr. O’Rourke expense as a fresh-faced alternative to Mr. Biden. In a sign of how New York’s money circle extends beyond the finance sector, both Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. O’Rourke recently made time for private sit-downs with Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue and the artistic director of Condé Nast, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser.
As for Mr. de Blasio, he has openly shunned the financial sector throughout his mayoralty and has made the concentration of wealth in the “wrong hands” a central part of his 2020 message.
Mr. de Blasio has begun calling many of the same New York donors he has leaned on to fund his past municipal campaigns, according to people familiar with his activity. About two weeks before his 2020 launch, Mr. de Blasio also attended the closed-door meeting of the executive committee meeting of the Partnership for New York City.
New York donors are still giving to Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Booker. After all, if they lose, they will still be in City Hall or the United States Senate.
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