WASHINGTON • Some Democratic presidential candidates -- including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado -- are finding that their most generous donors are their old campaign accounts, Federal Election Commission reports show.
In the first half of the year, nine contenders — all but one of the senators and representatives seeking the White House — transferred more than $41 million from previous election bids to their presidential accounts. The transfers are giving them critical lifelines to compete in an expensive race in which the first caucuses and primaries aren’t until February.
Many of the candidates also have also worked to woo larger donors, the second-quarter reports show, even as they tout their small-donor efforts. Even so, about half of them burned through more money than they brought in between April and the end of June, the reports show.
“If six months before any votes are cast you are spending more than you raise and keeping yourself afloat by transferring in money from other accounts, you have a real problem,” said Rufus Gifford, who was finance director of President Barack Obama’s re-election bid. “You need to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Is this really my election?’”
Candidates are legally permitted to move money from one federal account to another. But governors and mayors aren’t allowed to seed their federal bids with leftover state and local campaign cash.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, noting Monday how tough his fundraising had been, said he was at a disadvantage because he wasn’t a federal elected official: “We didn’t start out with $5-$10 million in the bank.”
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s communications director said on Twitter that the Gillibrand campaign’s $8.2 million in the bank as of June 30 put her “in the TOP SIX for cash on hand.” Left unsaid: Gillibrand has raised $5.3 million between January and May and is being helped along by a $9.6 million transfer from her Senate campaign account.
Two liberal senators who are near the top of many polls, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, supplemented their campaigns with about $10 million each in old election funds.
For Warren, her initial cash transfer outpaced her first-quarter fundraising by $4 million. She then raised $19.1 million between April and the end of June, mostly from small donors. Adopting Sanders’s approach, she has vowed not to hold exclusive fundraisers for big donors or make calls to entice them. But she didn’t apply those restriction to her earlier Senate bids, and cash from those campaigns is now helping her stay flush in the presidential race.
Warren “does not believe that the Democratic nominee should be determined by who can line up the most support from billionaires and millionaires,” said Chris Hayden, a campaign spokesman. He didn’t address questions about whether her transfers diluted her presidential campaign’s pledge.
Other campaigns, including those of California Sen. Kamala Harris and Gillibrand, transferred money raised while they were taking lobbyist and corporate political-action committee contributions, which they no longer accept.
Harris and Bennet made the smallest transfers of any senators in the presidential race, $1.2 million and $700,000, respectively.
Most of the candidates are using a more traditional fundraising playbook, soliciting small donors through frequent emails and online advertisements while also holding events for people willing to give the $2,800 maximum individual contribution allowed for the primary.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the second-best fundraiser of the second quarter, raised about 62% of his $22 million from donors giving at least $200. That includes 2,723 donors who gave $2,800, an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of the FEC reports found.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg relied on donors who gave at least $200 for about 56% of his $24.9 million second-quarter haul. Among those larger givers are 1,454 who gave the maximum, the Journal analysis found.
Harris, who rose in many polls after breakout debate moments last month, raised about 55% of her $11.8 million in the second quarter from donors giving $200 or more. And 608 of them gave the maximum they could, the Journal analysis found.
Some campaigns are overly reliant on $2,800 checks, Jeff Weaver, a strategist for Sanders, said in a recent media briefing call. “Some folks are going to have really big numbers in this quarter, but they’re going to be scrambling in subsequent quarters to find those $2,800 donors to replace the ones who have been used up this time,” he said.
The Sanders campaign reported 29 donors who wrote $2,800 checks in the second quarter, the Journal’s analysis found.
Among Warren’s 154 maxed-out givers in the second quarter: actresses Amy Schumer, Scarlett Johansson and Silicon Valley venture capitalists Chamath Palihapitiya and Chris Sacca.
Many donors — like Gifford, who made $2,800 contributions to five presidential candidates — are giving to several contenders. Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg made maximum contributions to 10 presidential candidates in the second quarter.
“He has longtime friendships with many and wants to see the process play out for a while,” said Andy Spahn, an adviser to Katzenberg.
The largest Democratic donors have also popped up in somewhat unexpected places: On June 1, presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s wife, Kat Taylor, gave the maximum to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign.
In a statement, Taylor called Inslee a friend and praised his campaign’s focus on climate issues. “I am nonetheless totally in support of my husband’s candidacy,” she said.
Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund founder who jumped into the race earlier this month and pledged to spend $100 million of his own money, is scheduled to make his first campaign finance filing in October.
Anthony DeBarros, Chad Day and Ken Thomas contributed to this article.