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Democrats take early first steps for 2020 contest

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has paid more than $1 million this year through her political committees to a top online fund-raising firm.
US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has paid more than $1 million this year through her political committees to a top online fund-raising firm.(Paul Sancya/Associated Press/File 2016)

WASHINGTON — Aides to Senator Kamala Harris of California say that her fund-raisers in Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons this summer have been all about helping Democrats in 2018.

Former vice president Joe Biden’s allies say his new political group is building an e-mail list so he can communicate with his supporters about the future of the party and the country. And Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio says he has been traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire in part because “I like being out around the country.”

But the packed fund-raising calendars, brisk political spending, and trips to early primary states suggest that in fact a shadow campaign for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination is already well underway.

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In interviews, more than three dozen leading Democratic donors, fund-raisers, and operatives agreed that it was the earliest start they had ever seen to the jockeying that typically precedes the official kickoff to the campaign for the party’s presidential nomination.

It is a reflection of the deep antipathy toward President Trump among Democrats, and the widespread belief that the right candidate could defeat him, but also of the likelihood that the contest for the nomination could be the longest, most crowded, and most expensive in history.

“They used to start coming to talk to you two years before the election. Now, it’s six months after the last presidential election,” said Wall Street billionaire Marc Lasry, a major political donor who has met recently with several Democrats mentioned as prospective presidential candidates.

“It’s gotten ridiculous,” Lasry said.

Well before most candidates will announce they are running and publicly plead for support from voters, as many as 20 prospective Democratic candidates are taking steps that could lay the financial foundation for a campaign.

They are making their cases to wealthy donors, while spending briskly through political committees to pay staff members, organize fund-raisers, arrange travel, and rally small donors and volunteers, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, the IRS, and state regulators.

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Before any run for president, many prospective candidates are facing 2018 reelection campaigns of their own. But in several cases, they are not expected to face serious challenges, and their reelection campaigns are being watched closely by donors and other party insiders to assess their viability for 2020.

In much the same way, Hillary Clinton used her Senate re-election campaign in New York in 2006 to build a staff and national fund-raising operation that became the foundation for her unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s successor in the Senate, Kirsten E. Gillibrand, has paid more than $1 million this year through her political committees to a top online fund-raising firm, which has helped her reap $2.3 million this year in small donations for a 2018 reelection race in which she is the heavy favorite. She has also continued courting major donors, holding two fund-raisers last month in the Hamptons. At one, she was asked by a donor whether she was considering running for president. She did not explicitly rule out a White House run, according to an attendee.

Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who maintains deep ties to some of the party’s most generous donors, has spent $164,000 through his political committee on staff members and consultants this year and $46,000 in recent months to hold fund-raisers and other events at a Washington steakhouse.

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The PAC, which rents office space in Washington, this year collected big checks from longtime backers of the Clintons, including $50,000 from Howard Kessler, a Boston financier; and $25,000 each from Albert J. Dwoskin, a Virginia real estate developer, and Douglas J. Band, a former Clinton aide and fund-raiser.

The PAC has also donated more than $315,000 to Democratic candidates and committees in Virginia this year.

McAuliffe, who is barred by term limits from running in the Virginia governor’s race this year, said during a recent appearance Sunday on CNN that he got asked “all the time” whether he was running for president.

“We’ll see what happens down the road. But I have no intentions of running for president,” he said, explaining that his focus was on finishing his governorship and helping the party’s gubernatorial candidates in 2018.

Aides to Gillibrand and those of other prospective candidates contacted for this article similarly insisted that their fund-raising had nothing to do with setting the stage for 2020.