Top Democratic donors hear from rising stars ahead of 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to excite top donors ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee gave a platform Tuesday to the party’s rising stars, including winners and one notable loser from the November midterms.

Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum, fresh off a loss in a razor-thin governor’s race, and Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, among others, got a warm welcome from about 300 Democratic donors gathered in Washington for an all-day, closed-door session.

Gillum’s appearance, a surprise for attendees, was sure to fuel speculation that he might run for president — a once-unthinkable prospect rendered plausible by the White House buzz around Beto O’Rourke, the Texan who narrowly lost a competitive race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Gillum was not made available for an interview.

Pressley, among the most heralded of the largest Democratic House freshman class since the Watergate era of the 1970s, said she reminded the well-heeled audience that they must take lessons from the successes of many liberal upstarts and first-time candidates.

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“We can no longer make assumptions in the party about who desires or deserves a seat at the table of democracy,” she told The Associated Press after her remarks. “I may not be invited back,” she joked.

For party Chairman Tom Perez, the event was a chance to showcase fresh talent as he tries to improve the party’s financial position and widen the DNC’s footprint ahead of a potentially bruising primary process that Democrats hope will end with a nominee who can defeat President Donald Trump.

Perez is looking to close the financial gap with the Republican National Committee, with a focus on improving the party’s use of voter data in campaigns.

He opened Tuesday’s meeting with a celebration of “historic” midterm victories — Democrats regained control of the House while flipping seven governor’s seats, securing a majority of state attorneys general and gaining more than 300 state legislative seats. But Perez also could be heard advising that more investments in party infrastructure are needed ahead of 2020.

The audience included the DNC’s finance committee, other leading donors from the 2018 cycle and, perhaps most importantly, former donors who party leaders hope will re-engage.

Donor and activist Woody Kaplan summed up the party’s challenge in a cycle where the DNC must compete with other party committees and a hoard of presidential candidates.

“It’s in the teens the numbers of (presidential) candidates I’ve met with already,” said Kaplan, who declined to name them publicly.

Kaplan said he also prioritizes Democrats’ Senate campaign arm in 2020, noting that Republicans increased their majority in the upper chamber on Capitol Hill last month. “There’s a lot to consider,” he said.

The slate of speakers Tuesday reflects a balancing act for Perez, both in terms of the party’s internal identity struggles and in educating donors about the nuts and bolts of how the DNC fits into the left’s overall campaign effort.

Tapping Pressley, Gillum and Georgia Rep.-elect Lucy McBath, Perez acknowledged the self-described progressive movement and the influence of nonwhites in the party.

Pressley toppled a veteran lawmaker in a Democratic primary. McBath beat a GOP incumbent in an Atlanta suburban district that Republicans had held for four decades. Gillum won the Florida nomination by toppling white moderate candidates with establishment backing.

Other speakers — Nevada Sen.-elect Jacky Rosen and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy — represent the party’s more traditional political forces. Rosen ousted Republican Sen. Dean Heller in no small part because of organized labor’s influence in Nevada. Murphy, who will lead the Democratic Governors Association in 2020, is himself a former DNC finance chairman.

Donors also heard presentations from DNC staffers, with Perez hoping to bolster confidence in an organization that has faced widespread criticism during and since the 2016 campaign.

When Perez won the chairmanship in February 2017, the party had a $4 million debt and a cash balance of $10.5 million. The Republican Party had $25.3 million on hand and no debt.

Perez dismissed his first finance director months into the job, even as aides noted that the fundraising haul outpaced previous nonelection years, including when Barack Obama was president.

Since the start of the 2018 cycle, the DNC has reported $126.3 million in individual contributions. That’s more than the $95.9 million collected during the 2016 cycle — when Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was Democrats’ driving financial force — but less than the $155.5 million the DNC raised for the 2014 midterms.

As of November’s end, Perez had whittled down DNC’s debt to less than $3 million. The $10.4 million cash balance was essentially unchanged from when he began his tenure.

Perhaps a more jarring comparison: The RNC collected $226.1 million from individuals during the 2018 cycle. Still debt-free, the GOP boasted a $27 million balance.

To some degree, the DNC’s shortfalls are a function of how the two parties have evolved. Republicans centralize more of their efforts at party headquarters, while Democrats are more splintered. Democrats’ House campaign committee, for example, far outraised its GOP counterpart during the midterm campaign, and individual Democratic campaigns for House and Senate consistently outraised Republican incumbents and challengers.

Still, as Perez and other Democrats acknowledged Tuesday, the landscape limits the party’s footprint as it tries to topple Trump.

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