Politico

Biden throws his campaign a lifeline

By reversing course and dropping his opposition to super PACs, Joe Biden has all but admitted he’s getting swamped in fundraising.

But it was a strategic retreat that could end up paying big dividends for his cash-starved campaign.

Calls to a half-dozen maxed-out Biden donors Friday revealed that they would gladly dig deeper for the former vice president and contribute to a super PAC that enables them — and corporations — to give and spend unlimited amounts of money.

“Joe Biden has not raised as much money as the others through his own campaign efforts. But you have to understand, that’s basically how it works. Bernie Sanders had, what, 20,000 people at an event in New York? Suppose each one of those people gave $100,” said Joe Cotchett, a major Bay Area bundler for Biden. “Does Joe have the ability to have 20,000 people at a rally right now? The answer is no. But hopefully for Joe, it will come.”

Harold Schaitberger, head of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has already endorsed Biden, said it would likely commit to a Biden super PAC.

“We would be in a position to support that effort,” said Schaitberger. “We’re certainly capable of spending in the six figures.

Donors’ willingness to up the ante is exactly what the Biden campaign was counting on, fretting that it can’t manage both a primary campaign against 18 rivals as well as a fusillade from Republicans trained almost solely on him. On Thursday, it took the risky step of embracing a super PAC in a primary where nearly all of his rivals reject the fundraising vehicles as emblematic of the pernicious influence of big money in politics.

The campaign’s bet is premised on the idea that the benefits of accepting super PAC support outweigh the likely blowback from rivals and reform-minded primary voters.

A super PAC could saturate the airwaves with ads that amplify the campaign’s message on Ukraine, pushing back against Donald Trump’s relentless attacks about the Biden family’s alleged corruption, or boost Biden against his better-funded Democratic foes.

Without a robust online fundraising operation that can match top-tier rivals like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the Biden campaign still could run low on money as the long, costly primary season drags toward Super Tuesday. And it’s not yet clear how much money a potential vehicle backing Biden could raise.

But the prospect breathes new energy into his effort, some donors say, giving more certainty that it will have the resources to move forward.

Cotchett noted that donors are also looking ahead to the massive amounts of cash needed to compete on Super Tuesday, when 14 states hold contests on the same day, and predicted that by then, nearly every candidate will be cash-strapped, and perhaps even ready to accept outside support.

Another top Biden fundraiser, John Morgan, said he’s ready to give but would like to see how the super PAC spends its money and expressed concerns that his money could be used to underwrite consultant fundraisers.

“I don’t like to pay commissions,” Morgan said.

Morgan said he’s confident Biden will win the primary, in part because Warren and Sanders will continue to divide the progressive vote.

“Bernie isn’t leaving the race even if he’s in ICU,” Morgan said, referring to the 78-year-old’s recent heart attack. “We’ve all got life expectancy, planned obsolescence. It’s just how life is.”

While a Biden super PAC is not yet established, the idea to form one began weeks ago — and it faced initial opposition from Biden’s campaign. On Thursday, the campaign sent a signal that it would drop its opposition.

The donors and consultants involved in discussions surrounding the creation of a super PAC, some of whom would speak with POLITICO only on background, insisted that they haven’t discussed their plans with the campaign and therefore did not run afoul of laws prohibiting coordination with an outside entity funded by unlimited contributions.

The campaign’s statement, they said, was released without their knowledge, which the campaign said as well.

Underpinning the prospective Biden super PAC is a circle of highly regarded operatives. Longtime Florida operative Steve Schale, a Barack Obama alum and frequent Biden booster, is in talks to help lead the effort.

Schale declined to comment for this story.

Also involved is Julianna Smoot, who served as Obama’s national finance director in 2008 and his deputy campaign manager in 2012. Mark Riddle, a strategist who this cycle has helmed the outside spending group Future Majority, will also take on a leadership role, sources say, and Larry Rasky, a longtime Biden friend who worked on the former vice president’s 1988 and 2008 presidential bids will play a major role.

One source with knowledge of the effort said potential donors are poised to get more information next week.

The campaign has insisted that it had the necessary funds to compete through the early state contests, pointing to some polls showing Biden holding his own or gaining traction. But some critics panned Biden’s move as a cry for help.

“If they are going to have one, at least disavow it so you can pretend to be reform minded,” said Brian Fallon, a former communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “That they are blessing it means they are desperate for it to happen and want donors to know they want them to give to it.”

Biden himself has said he’s not concerned about having the resources to compete.

“We’re on a course to do extremely well,” Biden said in a 60 Minutes interview set to air Sunday. “I’m not worried about being able to fund this campaign. I really am not, truly.”

In a statement, the campaign framed the situation confronting Biden as unique and daunting.

Anti-Biden spending from Republicans is “pouring into this race with one goal: ensure Joe Biden is not the nominee that faces Donald Trump in 2020,” the campaign said, adding that “no Democratic contender has ever faced this kind of onslaught from Republicans while still having to win the party nomination. It is simply unprecedented.”

The former vice president’s reversal was welcome news to donors who talked to POLITICO. Some had grown frustrated with the campaign, especially after it reported spending more than it took in during the third quarter of the year.

“That was total malpractice,” said one donor, who did not want to go on record criticizing the campaign. “I’ve given and raised money, and it’s like, ‘what the hell? I did my job right. Do yours.’ I’m not the only one who feels this way. And some of us think Biden needs the help, we know it, whether he wants it or not.”

While Biden drew criticism from Sanders and Warren for his decision, allies said the benefits for him are worth the expected pummeling from the left and the right.

“There is always a risk to appearing too much like the status quo candidate or taking too much money,” said Steve Westly, a former California state controller and a Biden supporter. “As someone who has run for office myself, there’s a bigger risk of showing up without enough money to get your message out.”

Michael Adler, a Miami developer and Biden donor who has been friends with Biden since the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, said Biden shouldn’t unilaterally disarm by renouncing a super PAC, considering super PACs aided Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And, he pointed out, Trump has loads of outside help as well.

“With what the president is doing in raising money, it would almost be malfeasance for any candidate that wins the nomination to be in a competitive disadvantage to make an ideological point about who’s funding them,” Adler said. “There’s nothing wrong with small-dollar contributors. But $5 contributors shouldn’t determine the whole election. The whole electorate should determine the election. And people who can make larger contributions should be able to express themselves.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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