The introduction was familiar: “I’m Joe Biden from Scranton, by way of Claymont and Wilmington. …”
It was classic Biden, who for years has presented himself as “Middle Class Joe,” a champion of working-class folks like those in northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s central to his argument for why he can win the presidency.
But hours after launching his campaign Thursday, Biden’s first formal event wasn’t at a union hall or factory. It was a Philadelphia fund-raiser with prominent executives from Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and powerhouse law firms, all hosted in the West Mount Airy home of Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen.
Guests were asked to contribute as much as $2,800, and snacked on Mediterranean charcuterie with sliced steak and other hors d’oeuvres as they assembled on Cohen’s back patio for Biden’s 14-minute speech. More than 100 showed up.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who helped organize the event, said he expected it to ultimately bring in $700,000 to $750,000. That would account for more than 10 percent of the $6.3 million the campaign said it had raised in donations in the first 24 hours since Biden’s announcement — the most of any 2020 Democratic candidate’s opening-day haul.
The event, however, set up a sharp contrast with the blue-collar image the former vice president hopes to burnish — his first campaign stop with workers will come Monday at a Pittsburgh union hall. It also created an immediate flashpoint with the faction of his party’s voters that want to diminish the influence of the rich and powerful — and with some of his Democratic rivals.
‘Not for sale’
Hours after his campaign announcement Thursday morning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) emailed an appeal to her supporters with the subject line, “Elizabeth’s time is not for sale.”
“Even though the pressure is high, you won’t see Elizabeth resort to hopping around big cities to host swanky fund-raisers with wealthy donors,” the email said.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who has broken fund-raising records with viral, grassroots appeal, sent out an email the same day asking supporters to chip in $3 apiece.
“Today is an important day to show the strength of our grassroots campaign, especially given the fact that the former vice president has already been collecting checks from major donors for a week leading up to this launch,” his campaign wrote in the message.
Biden also put out his own email appeals asking for smaller amounts Thursday.
“What we raise today will determine the number of rallies we can host, the staff we can hire, and the number of voters we can contact,” one message said. “So we really need all of Joe’s top supporters to chip in.”
To be sure, Biden needs to raise money to compete.
Before he even officially entered the race, his competitors already had millions in their campaign accounts. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) had $16 million in his coffers as of March 31, and, as he did in 2016, was touting his lead among small-dollar donors. President Donald Trump had nearly $41 million — giving him a potentially daunting advantage over any Democrat who wants the nomination.
“You’ve got to take the money. There’s too much overthink about that,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican political consultant who led Jeb Bush’s Super PAC in 2016. He said the perceived downside of such big fund-raising events is overrated. “No money, no campaign.”
Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia-based law partner who helped organize Thursday’s gathering, said big donors are “not expecting they’re going to get something for it, other than supporting the person they think is best capable of taking the White House away from the current occupant.”
Rendell noted that most of the donors had known Biden for decades.
“The folks on this patio out here, you’re part of the folks that brung me to the dance, as they say, long time ago, from ‘72 on,” Biden told the crowd. “You’ve been the people that have helped me.”
Still, liberals such as Warren and Sanders have cast fund-raising as not just a “process” issue, but one that speaks to how a politician governs, and whom they look out for.
Progressives have long been wary of Cohen — one of Philadelphia’s most enduring political power brokers — given Comcast’s influence. Another top organizer for Thursday’s fund-raiser was Daniel J. Hilferty, a registered Republican and CEO of the health insurer Independence Blue Cross.
(Sanders has called for abolishing private health insurance companies like Independence in favor of a single-payer, government-run system.)
Nikil Saval, an organizer with the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia, which grew out of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, questioned how any candidate could plausibly claim to represent ordinary people when “you’re fraternizing and spending time constantly with wealthy people.”
Just hours after Biden launched his bid, Saval noted skeptically, one of his first stops "is to go to a fund-raiser of some of the richest people in Philadelphia — it immediately raises suspicion.”
Biden supporters acknowledge the potentially troubling optics of cozying up to elite donors on Day One, but say the former vice president was under immense pressure to announce a huge cash haul and demonstrate he has the support worthy of a front-runner. Many pundits look, in particular, at what candidates raise in the first 24 hours as a sign of their viability.
And Biden allies argue that beating Trump will take money. None other than Barack Obama attended a fund-raiser at Cohen’s home in 2011 for his reelection campaign, while setting fund-raising records.
They also note Biden plans to quickly emphasize his vision for the middle class, starting with the rally Monday in Pittsburgh.
Any Democrat who recoils over Biden’s fund-raising probably wasn’t planning on voting for the old-guard candidate in the primary anyway, analysts said.
“He can write that part of the Democratic electorate off; other people are fighting for them,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University in New Jersey. “He’s looking for the old stalwarts in the party: The working-class, older white voter is going to be his core support.”
Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University, said Biden has to rely on traditional methods, since he doesn’t have the small donor list, or the viral star power, of the new class of rivals that has risen since he his last presidential campaign, in 2008.
“Their celebrity has taken off" during a time of online, small dollar fund-raising, Brown said. She added, “It does reinforce the idea that he is a candidate from a different era.”
Sanders has received 84 percent of his money from people who gave $200 or less, according to a New York Times analysis. For Warren it was 70 percent; 64 percent for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and 59 percent for O’Rourke.
Many other Democratic hopefuls, however, have also relied on big donors for the vast majority of their support, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), Cory Booker (D., N.J.), and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.)
Biden allies hope that a dose of transparency can help ease the criticism. His campaign allowed a handful of reporters into the event Thursday, and said the media will be permitted at future events. Reporters were allowed to watch Biden speak, but were otherwise sequestered in Cohen’s basement.
Thursday’s invitation also noted that he would not accept donations from corporations, lobbyists, or their political committees.
Principle or pragmatism?
Many of Biden’s supporters, pointing to polls showing that Democratic voters are prioritizing the ability to beat Trump, believe that most of the party will take a pragmatic approach to the campaign.
Kessler, the Biden supporter, suggested that candidates like Warren were likely criticizing Biden because they couldn’t attract the same kind of support.
And while Warren relies mainly on smaller donors, her 2018 Senate campaign also accepted large checks from some of the same people who put together Biden’s event Thursday, including Rendell and lawyer Stephen A. Cozen.
“Someone’s going to get this nomination," Kessler said, "and that somebody is going to need support from all sectors of the Democratic Party.”