Politics

07.30.14

Elizabeth Warren’s Biggest Donors Warn Her Not to Run for President

As speculation about the Massachusetts senator’s presidential ambitions swells, her biggest donors have one thing to say: There’s no way on earth they’re backing her over Hillary Clinton.

She “lit up” a gathering of liberal activists earlier this month with a barn-burner of a speech calling on Democrats to push back hard as thousands of attendees waved signs and chanted “Run, Liz, Run!” Her every denial that she will not run for president is parsed down to the verb tense for evidence that the door is open even a crack. She embarked on the kind of nationwide book tour that candidates-in-waiting always do as they drum up interest for a potential bid, and a “Ready for Elizabeth” draft movement is preparing to launch satellite chapters in states and cities around the country.

But if Elizabeth Warren does in fact reverse her repeated denials of interest and decides to run for president, she will have to do so virtually alone. That’s because almost to a person, her earliest and most devoted backers do not want her to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

“If Elizabeth called me up and said, ‘I am thinking of running for president,’ I would say, ‘Elizabeth, are you out of your goddamn mind?’” said one New York-based donor who has hosted  Warren in his living room. “I really like Elizabeth, but if Hillary is in the race it just makes no sense.”

This conversation was echoed again and again in more than a dozen interviews with big-ticket Democratic donors in Warren’s hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in cities that operate as ATMs for the Democratic money machine, like New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Over and over again, the message was the same: Stay in the Senate, Liz, stay in the Senate.

There are many reasons why Warren would want to mount a campaign. The primary animating force of her political career—that the economy is unfairly tilted toward the rich, and that the Wall Street banks are rigging the game—has struck a chord with the activist wing of her party. And that same activist wing doesn’t believe that Hillary Clinton, with her six-figure speeches to Goldman Sachs and her ties to the triangulating policies of her husband, can carry that banner for them. Warren has become a top Democratic surrogate in red states like Kentucky and West Virginia, and in races across the country, “The Warren Wing” appears to be on the march.

“There is a rising economic populist tide in America, and Elizabeth Warren is the personification of that tide,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has been organizing to make sure every presidential candidate is asked whether they agree with Warren. “In the Democratic Party there is a battle between the economic populist wing that fights for the little guy against the corporate wing, and she represents the populist wing.”

“If Elizabeth called me up and said, ‘I am thinking of running for president,’ I would say, ‘Elizabeth, are you out of your goddamn mind?’”

Were she to run, Warren would face enormous challenges, mainly in that Hillary Clinton remains historically popular with Democrats. But the fact that the network of Democratic insiders who helped Warren raise a record $42 million for her 2012 Senate bid want her to stand down in deference to Clinton should all but end speculation that she will be a candidate.

“I think she is outstanding. She is articulate. She is persuasive. She can hit a piece of bullshit from a hundred yards away,” said Victor A. Kovner, a Manhattan lawyer who hosted Warren for a fundraiser way back in 2011. But, he added, “I will be supporting Hillary in 2016. No question about that.”

Some Democrats who say they support Hillary still want Warren in the race, under the theory that it will give a platform to Warren’s ideas on the economy that she cannot achieve while serving as one of 100 senators.

But Kovner, echoing other members of the Democratic donor class, rejects this view. “People should run to win,” he said. “They shouldn’t run to have a voice. That is what Herman Cain did.” 

To be clear, the world of Warren-backers isn’t entirely ready for Hillary, and some are holding out hope that the Massachusetts senator joins the race.

“I think it would be very good if she were the nominee,” said Marc Weiss, a tech entrepreneur who helped fund a nascent Warren for Senate campaign soon after she announced. “She is closer to my views on almost every issue. I would be very enthusiastic if she decided to run.”

Clinton, Weiss said, was a good senator and secretary of state, but “the problem I have with her is as a potential president is that she is too comfortable with many of the forces that are with Wall Street. It is hard to see how she would really be a voice for the middle class.”

Erica Sagrans, the campaign manager at Ready for Warren, dismissed the notion that Warren would struggle to raise money if her fundraising network went with Clinton. “She has proven to be a pretty successful fundraiser for herself and for other candidates. I don’t see that as being a huge challenge for her should she run.”

There is an argument to be made that a Warren candidacy would benefit Clinton, even if the former secretary of state prevailed at the end. It would, for one thing, give the Democratic Party a primary worth watching, at a time when much of the action appears to be on the Republican side—and Democrats who remember 2008 can recall how galvanizing that campaign was for the party. Democrats maintain a sizeable demographic advantage, and the GOP appears as if it may be on the verge of making the same mistakes it made in the clownish 2012 nominating process.

But few of Warren’s biggest supporters want to risk it.

“I am not sure what value it would bring to have her run,” said Wayne Shields, CEO of the Association for Reproductive Health Professionals, who, along with Warren’s husband, hosted Warren at his house earlier in her Senate candidacy. “She would be such a target for conservatives, it may end up having a paradoxical effect on Democrats.”

One Massachusetts Democrat, who helped lay the groundwork for Warren’s Senate run back when Warren was a Harvard professor mostly known as a thwarted nominee to the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, agreed:

“If she ran, it would tear apart the Democratic base even worse than Hillary and Obama did. Whoever is pushing this is not doing the Democratic Party any favors, and I wish it would stop.”

That feeling, and it is one echoed in other conversations among the donor class, is that a Warren run would expose divisions in the Democratic Party—between, in Adam Green’s words, the populist and the corporate wings—that have lain largely dormant on the national level as Democrats fear a Tea Party-controlled executive branch.

“It would galvanize a part of the left, and then the question becomes, how do you keep them motivated for a general election?” said one Warren donor. “She is a fresh face. She would get a lot of attention, which could hurt Hillary.”

If Hillary decided not to run,  even Warren’s most devoted supporters doubt that she could win the presidency.

“If Hillary comes out tomorrow and says, ‘I’m not running,’ obviously, this becomes a difference question, but I still think she shouldn’t run,” said one New York-based financial supporter. “She has so many holes in her resume. Even Obama had more experience than she does.”

Added another California-based donor who has given thousands of dollars to Warren’s political action committee, PAC for a Level Playing Field, “I don’t think she would be a very good president. Two years ago she was a college professor, for goodness sakes. She has one issue and she is a great advocate for that one issue. She doesn’t have the breadth of experience necessary to be president.”

And even those who say they would be the first to line up behind a Warren candidacy say that part of them hopes she doesn’t do it. “Of course I would be with her,” said one Massachusetts Democrat who was one of Warren’s earliest supporters. “But this is Ted Kennedy’s seat. We know what can be accomplished in a long Senate career—it is almost as much as can be accomplished in the White House.”

Most of the Democratic donors interviewed for this article were quick to point out that at that moment this is largely an academic discussion. Warren has said repeatedly—and in some cases to these donors personally—that she is not running for president. Those who have spoken to Warren recently say that she seems quite content in the Senate, and they doubt that she is ready to give up her life to run for president.

“I hear the chatter, but I also hear what Elizabeth Warren is saying, and she has been pretty firm in answer to that question,” said Dennis Mehiel, a New York-based donor who hosted Warren early on in her Senate campaign.

And if the answer to that question ever changed?

“I love Elizabeth. But I go back a very long way with Hillary.”