Cash and Kerry

The cocktail party at financier Blair Effron’s Park Avenue duplex on February 3 had a simple purpose: to persuade some of the city’s biggest political fund-raisers to throw their considerable resources behind the one man their hosts believe can beat George W. Bush—John Kerry.

Effron had invited a special guest, former Nebraska governor turned New School president Bob Kerrey, to convince this deep-pockets crowd that the front-runner was indeed electable. And there Kerrey stood, in front of a big screen bearing an image of the nation’s electoral map, pressing his case. As fund-raising targets like money manager Gregg Hymowitz and real-estate magnate John Tishman looked on, Kerrey outlined a detailed, state-by-state scenario in which the junior Massachusetts senator could take the White House.

The room buzzed with excited political chatter. The exit polls were predicting that Kerry would take five of the day’s seven caucuses and primaries. Now that Kerry (not Dean) was the likely nominee, guests told each other as they sipped their cocktails, it looked as if there were at least a chance at dislodging Dubya. The senator, with his war record and long résumé, might have a shot at winning it all.

But a sobering reality lurked beneath all the boozy enthusiasm. If and when Kerry did win the nomination, he would roll off the Democratic-primary assembly line right into the $200 million–plus buzz-saw otherwise known as the Bush reelection apparatus. If the big New York money didn’t throw its weight and resources behind Kerry right now, guests worried, he might not stand a chance.

The gathering captured the new mix of optimism and urgency now prevalent among New York’s top Democratic contributors. Ever since Iowa, Kerry’s New York finance team, led by Jamie Whitehead, has done a remarkable job of diverting money and supporters his way. Just last week, for instance, Harvey Weinstein decided to back Kerry after a long period of fence-sitting. Weinstein was considered a coup, since he can organize celebrity-studded events that can move hefty sums of Hollywood cash into political coffers. And Kerry has won other big New York backers recently, like money manager Richard Medley and former ambassador Carl Spielvogel and his wife, author Barbaralee Diamonstein.

There’s no quibbling with those successes. But here’s the reality check: It’s not nearly enough. Unless the city’s fund-raising community quickly coalesces behind Kerry in a big way, winning the nomination could prove beside the point. The Bush team has already signaled that if and when Kerry emerges as the clear winner, it will mount a huge TV ad campaign “defining” (punditspeak for “sliming”) him as a paleoliberal on taxes and welfare—Mike Dukakis with a Bergdorf Goodman haircut. The onslaught could begin as soon as March, which means Kerry needs enough money to launch an air and ground campaign in weeks—and fund it through the convention.

“If we don’t get the money now, Bush is going to get too far ahead of the curve on us,” says John Catsimatidis, the supermarket mogul and a major Kerry supporter. “It’s time for all good Democratic fund-raisers to come together. We need you—now.”

“I’m only a movie guy, but it’s important that Democratic fund-raisers start rallying around Kerry as soon as possible, if we’re going to be competitive against the Republican money machine,” adds Weinstein, who notes that he also holds John Edwards and Wesley Clark in high regard. “A Kerry-Edwards ticket is clearly the one that would be the most appealing. But without the necessary financing, it will be that much harder to elect a Democrat.”

Remember Bob Dole? In 1996, he was so broke after the primaries that he couldn’t afford a plane between events, much less TV ads. Bill Clinton filled the vacuum with a TV barrage; before long, Dole was hawking a certain male-potency enhancement. Some Kerry backers worry about a similar scenario (especially the Viagra part).

The historical comparison is far from perfect. Unless Edwards, Clark, or Dean stages a last-minute rally, chances are Kerry won’t be as broke as Dole. The Democratic National Committee has set up a $10 million presidential fund for the eventual nominee. Kerry’s fund-raisers have said the money’s been gushing since Kerry surged; they raised $1 million over the Internet alone in the week after Iowa. And a host of left-leaning groups are raising money for TV assaults on Bush. Still, whatever the nominee amasses is likely to look like a bowl of change next to Bush’s unprecedented war chest.

Robert Zimmerman, a DNC member from New York and a top Kerry fund-raiser, underscores the urgency of the moment by recounting a recent conversation with a senior GOP consultant. “The guy said, ‘You haven’t seen shock and awe until you’ve seen $200 million in attack ads,’ ” Zimmerman says. “He’s right. If Kerry’s going to succeed in the battleground states, we have to mobilize the New York donor community quickly and deliver our own shock-and-awe campaign in return. The battle begins here.”

The spoils, of course, are huge. In 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Al Gore raised more money in New York than any place other than Washington, D.C., the company town of politics.

“The rallying cry of Democratic donors is “ABB”—Anybody But Bush. They see his occupancy of the White House as a national emergency.”

The rallying cry of Democratic donors is “ABB”—Anybody But Bush. They hate the future-mortgaging tax cuts, the unjustified Iraq invasion, the WMD dissembling, the flight suit, the hardball politics, the hard-right politics, you name it. They see his continued occupancy of the White House as a national emergency. And that, they say, has made electability, more than policy, the quality that matters most in choosing his opponent.

Kerry supporters are hoping that ABB syndrome will get the big-money types behind him. They maintain Kerry has proved himself the party’s best shot. He’s got broad-based appeal among Democratic voters—a must in a close general election. His war record gives him cover to assail the commander-in-chief’s national-security strategy. While his voting record has its lefty soft spots, it’s unclear whether the GOP’s planned “liberal, liberal, liberal” assault will work on a former prosecutor and decorated veteran. Several polls already show him ahead of Bush. And if the donors did rally round, Kerry could be somewhat competitive in the cash department because he’s passed on federal matching funds—allowing him to raise an unlimited sum until the convention.

Given all that, the argument concludes, the big-money donors should quit hedging their bets and just get behind him.

Rampant ABB has led some to note that even if the race for the Democratic nomination does drag on, the big money will coalesce behind the winner eventually. “The No. 1 objective of virtually every Democrat of any consequence is to defeat the present president,” says Mel Weiss, a plaintiff’s lawyer and big contributor who’s undecided. “The donors will all jump onboard with the nominee big-time, whoever he is.” The danger, of course, is that it will be too little too late. Which is exactly what Karl Rove is banking on.

Cash and Kerry