Sen. Kamala Harris‘ abrupt departure Tuesday from the 2020 presidential race underscores how much the financial landscape has shifted for Democratic presidential contenders — richly rewarding the candidates who can appeal to small-dollar donors and hobbling some of those competing for the favor of the wealthy contributors who have traditionally fueled campaigns.
The two fundraising leaders among Democrats — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — each outraised Harris by more than 2-to-1 during the most recent fundraising quarter while relying on small contributions for roughly 60% of their individual contributions.
“My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” Harris said in an email to supporters announcing her departure. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.”
Harris’ departure came just hours after news emerged that a new pro-Harris super PAC had reserved nearly $500,000 worth of television advertising time in Iowa, the state on which Harris had staked her entire campaign. The group quickly canceled the buy Tuesday.
But the pro-Harris People Standing Strong was the third such outside group to crop up in support of Democrats, despite the candidates’ early denunciations of big-money super PACs. Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts from rich donors and corporate interests to sway elections.
“Candidates recognize that super PACs come with a real negative connotation,” said Larry Noble, a former top lawyer with the Federal Election Commission and a CNN contributor. “But in a field where money still matters, they find themselves veering towards them.”
Noble said many candidates faltered financially because, in a crowded Democratic field, donors have opted to “hold back and hedge their bets a bit.”
Harris was slated to headline a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday.
But the event, which included a number of top Harris donors like Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry, Paul Weiss chairman Brad Karp and financier Blair Effron, was struggling to raise significant money despite the big-name hosts, a top Democratic donor who was in touch with the campaign story told CNN.
“No one is going to pay for a wake,” the donor said.
Harris canceled the event shortly before announcing she would end her campaign.
New super PACs
In late October, longtime allies of former Vice President Joe Biden formed Unite the Country super PAC after Biden dropped his longstanding opposition to outside help.
Biden collected just $15 million during the July-to-September fundraising period, trailing his leading rivals. Biden aides this week said his fundraising rebounded last month, and that his campaign had raised more in November than it had during the entire three months of the third quarter.
Another super PAC, United We Win, launched last month to boost the presidential ambitions of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who has struggled to break through in fundraising. The group has said it will spend $1 million on digital advertising to help Booker meet fundraising and donor thresholds to qualify for the next Democratic debate on December 19.
Booker, who has repeatedly denounced super PACs, has until December 12 to make the debate cut. While his campaign has said he’s met the fundraising and donor thresholds, he has not yet hit the polling requirements set by the Democratic National Committee.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who recently entered the Democratic nomination battle, has signaled he would be willing to take super PAC help to “catch up” to the presidential field.
One other late entrant hopes to demonstrate the power of his money. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, has outspent almost every other candidate on television ads since he entered the race November 24.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Democrat had spent $59.5 million on TV ads, according to buys and ad reservations tracked by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
If Bloomberg continues his blistering pace, he could overtake the roughly $76 million spent since early July by Tom Steyer, the other billionaire seeking the Democratic nomination.
Harris had qualified for the December 19 debate.
Now that she has ended her campaign, only six Democrats, including Steyer, were guaranteed a spot on December’s debate stage as of late Tuesday afternoon. All are white, despite Democrats fielding their party’s most diverse slate of White House contenders.
“You can literally buy your way onto the debate stage,” said Quentin James, a political strategist and founder of The Collective PAC — a group working to increase African-American political participation. “This is going to keep happening unless there are structural changes in how we run our politics.”