IOWA CAUCUS 2020

Fact Checker: Elizabeth Warren claims of no 'big-dollar' fundraisers wasn't always the case

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren gestures as she speaks Jan. 4 during a town hall meeting at West
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren gestures as she speaks Jan. 4 during a town hall meeting at West Delaware High School in Manchester. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

In Elizabeth Warren’s “Top Priority” ad, which she started airing Jan. 9 in Iowa, the Democratic presidential candidate says “I’m not doing big-dollar fundraisers.” On the screen, it says Warren’s campaign is “100 percent grassroots funded. No big-dollar fundraisers.”

Analysis

Warren, a Massachusetts senator, pledged Feb. 25, 2019, that she would not hold “fancy receptions” or “big money fundraisers,” news outlets reported.

She wrote an email to supporters saying wealthy donors would not be able to purchase better seats or one-on-one time with her at events. She also declined to spend time calling large donors or to accept gifts from federal lobbyists or super PACs.

Graded a B

Warren said in October she would continue this policy through to the general election if she’s chosen as the Democratic presidential nominee.

Warren’s claims in the “Top Priority” ad are more about the way she’s fundraising than the size of gifts. She eschews “big-dollar fundraisers,” but not necessarily big-dollar donors. Warren isn’t shunning gifts over a certain dollar amount and, in fact, her campaign accepts gifts up to the legal limit of $2,700 from an individual for the primary.

But the difference, the campaign says, is she isn’t giving large donors more access, which frees up time for selfie lines and other interactions with average voters.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, also running for the Democratic nomination, likewise has committed to grassroots fundraising.

Warren’s position led her at the Dec. 19 presidential debate to criticize former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg for speaking at a fundraiser in a Napa Valley wine cave where attendees were charged $900 for a bottle of wine. Buttigieg pointed out Warren also raised money from large donors back when she was running for the U.S. Senate.

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At one Senate fundraiser in June 2018 in Boston, Warren donors who could contribute or raise $2,700 got premium seating and were invited to a VIP photo reception, the Associated Press reported. Donors of at least $1,000 got a souvenir wine bottle.

Warren told reporters after a Dec. 21 event in Cedar Rapids it was that type of fundraising that made her want to change things for her presidential bid, the Des Moines Register reported.

So Warren’s claim she’s not doing any “big-dollar fundraisers” is true, as long as you hold her to just her presidential campaign. This seems fair, considering she’s not saying she never has done this type of fundraising.

Now let’s look at Warren’s claim she’s “100 percent grassroots funded.” Grassroots is a subjective term, but it’s generally defined as being of the common people, not the elite.

The Federal Election Commission website shows Warren for President Inc. raised $60.3 million from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, 2019.

The Warren campaign said in October the average gift through Sept. 30 was $26. The average amount can be influenced by a large number of small donations. Warren had more than 700 donations of $1 or less listed on the FEC site. Right after the Dec. 19 debate, Buttigieg announced a contest for the smallest donation, the Hill reported.

Of Warren’s $60 million, about 53 percent came from small individual donors who contributed less than $200 each, according the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org website. Large individual donors contributed 30 percent and “other” 17 percent, Open Secrets reported.

That “other” is a $10.4 million transfer from Warren’s Senate fundraising campaign — which means some of it comes from fundraising events like the one in Boston.

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When Warren was running for Senate, she raised a lot of money from celebrities and other rich donors. A review of her FEC receipts from the 2018 primary cycle shows gifts that include $2,700 each from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Democratic supporter George Soros.

A campaign spokesman told the Washington Post that Warren raised $6 million in donations of $1,000 or more in the 2018 Senate race. That made up just under one-quarter of her total $25.8 million fundraising for that election.

Conclusion

There is no evidence Warren has held private fundraising events with a pay-to-play vibe since she made her pledge in February. She doesn’t charge for photos and her campaign says she has not taken time from the campaign trail to make phone calls to big donors.

We give Warren an A on her claim of not having “big-dollar fundraisers.”

But the Fact Checker joins the Washington Post in dinging Warren on the claim she is “100 percent grassroots funded.”

Warren transferred money from her Senate campaign to her presidential campaign, which means some share of her total campaign contributions came from big-dollar events she held while running for Senate.

At the absolute most, it would be 17 percent (the whole $10.4 million as a share of $60.3 million), but given what the Warren campaign told the Post about $1,000-plus gifts making up less than one-quarter of her total Senate fundraising, it’s probably much less.

The Fact Checker gives Warren a B overall.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

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