Virtual Convention Stymies DNC Networking, Rising Stars

Some Democratic donors are concerned that holding an all-virtual convention will rob them of the golden opportunity to put big money backers in the same room as rising stars over canapes and cocktails — potentially hurting the party’s long-term prospects.

While the Democratic National Committee concluded it had little choice during the coronavirus pandemic but to abandon its traditional in-person gathering, the decision comes with a cost. Away from the stages and speeches, conventions typically offer a unique opportunity for donors, activists, party officials and politicians to network and raise money. Little of that is happening this year.

Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser, says he’s gone to conventions in the past to see old friends and connect with people in the campaign, people who might go on to positions in the administration. Like other fundraisers Bloomberg News contacted, he has not received a single invitation to a donor event around this year’s convention.

“I have not seen an email,” he said.

While the party is trying to recreate the public-facing activities of a convention with musical acts and marquee speeches delivered virtually, events for donors and there are no fundraisers.

There will be some opportunities to network within state delegations this year, but the events aren’t aimed at donors. The Ohio Democratic Party is holding virtual lunches with national speakers, including Senator Cory Booker, that also feature state and local politicians. David Pepper, the state party’s chairman, said “We’ll try to recreate the experience delegates would have had.”

Pepper also said that since the events are virtual, attendence won’t be limited by need to find an available hotel room in Milwaukee.

Jamie Ansorge, who raises money for Democrats from his network of young professionals in New York, says Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes so impressed him when they met at a convention preview in 2019 that he would be willing to introduce him to his donors. He won’t have an opportunity to be wowed by other Democratic officeholders.

“Those are the kinds of unique national relationships that are built at conventions but just won’t happen this year,” he said.

Since conventions take place only every four years, the loss could be felt in 2022 and beyond.

“These conventions are where stars are made,” said Florida attorney John Morgan, who’s raising money for Biden. Sometimes that happens publicly, like when Barack Obama, then a candidate for Senate, gave the keynote address in 2004. Sometimes, it occurs behind the scenes when donors meet the fresh faces. “You won’t have that advantage,” Morgan says.

Democratic bundlers, who raise money from their professional and personal circles, say that the message from the party is that the best way to participate in the event, which runs Monday through Thursday, is to watch it on television. And most said they prefer to do that anyway due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That won’t hurt fundraising for the 2020 presidential ticket, donors say, because while building a bench of strong candidates for the future is important, the party is focused on winning the November election.

“The opportunity to socialize and build relationships for the future is important,” said Tony Coelho, a former member of Congress who’s raised money for Biden, “but the real goal is to beat Trump.”

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