Wall Street and top New York donors hear from Democratic governors considering 2020 presidential campaigns

Key Points
  • Several Democratic politicians - known collectively as "the governors" - have been in contact with Wall Street's top political financiers as they each consider running for president in 2020, CNBC has learned.
  • The group include Governors John Hickenlooper, Terry McAuliffe, Jay Inslee and Steve Bullock, according to the business titans with knowledge of the discussions who declined to be named.
  • Bullock's team has also been reaching out to potential staff in Iowa, a Democrat in the state who has spoken with them about a staffing position, told CNBC on the condition of anonymity.
The Chrysler Building is seen from above in New York City.
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Several Democratic politicians – known collectively as "the governors" among elite donors – have been in contact with Wall Street's top political financiers as they each consider running for president in 2020, CNBC has learned.

The group includes former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, according to business leaders with knowledge of the discussions who declined to be named.

The four men are among a large group of Democrats considering whether they should take a shot at trying to unseat President Donald Trump next year. The first primary contests of the presidential election season are a year away, and several possible Democratic candidates are expected to announce their plans in the coming weeks and months.

A person close to Hickenlooper, who handed the Colorado governor's office to fellow Democrat Jared Polis earlier this week, said he has been meeting with donors in New York.

"I can confirm he has met with top New York donors," this person said. "We meet with a wide range of donors with shared values across sectors."

A spokesman for Hickenlooper declined to comment.

Crystal Carson, a spokeswoman for McAuliffe, did not deny that the former Virginia governor was in touch with Wall Street and leading Democratic Party donors in New York.

"As the governor has said, he is making a hundreds of calls to active donors as he weighs his decision," Carson said in an email.

While courting New York's elite donors, Bullock's team has also been reaching out to potential staff in Iowa, a Democratic staffer in the state told CNBC on the condition of anonymity.

The Montana governor was elected chairman of the National Governors Association last year and made "Good Jobs for All Americans" his signature initiative. He has denied that he took on the new role to increase his national profile — though the possible 2020 contender made at least three trips to Iowa last year.

Representatives for Inslee and Bullock did not return repeated requests for comment.

While no commitments have been made, the early moves by these governors demonstrate the steep hill some of them need to climb to connect with donors outside of their individual states.

The developments also come at a time when many other potential 2020 contenders are reaching out to potential Wall Street backers, including Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a longtime critic of the Street, has tried to distance herself from any association with big money as a way to appeal to the progressive wing of the party. She has gone as far as shuttering her joint fundraising committee.

John Hickenlooper, former Governor, State of Colorado
Michael Brochstein | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Hickenlooper is a strong fundraiser in Colorado, but records from the nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics show that he is not plugged into the donor market outside of his home state. During his 2014 re-election campaign, he brought in $4.5 million from within the state and $1 million from outside donors. His top contribution came from the Colorado Democratic Party in the form of a check for just more than $549,000.

In September, Hickenlooper opened up a leadership political action committee, the Giddy Up PAC, which was created to support numerous federal candidates and allows him to raise money from top-dollar financiers across the country. So far, however, the PAC has only managed to bring in $371,055, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

The latest filing shows the committee contributed $2,500 to the Iowa Democratic Party and $5,000 to the Iowa Democratic House Caucus, among a few other donations. Iowa is the early caucus state during presidential elections.

The two-term Colorado Governor visited Iowa in October and told a crowd in downtown Des Moines that he would likely be entering the race for president in 2020.

"I think there's a pretty high probability that we're going to go ahead and do it," he said at the time.

Terry McAuliffe, former Governor of Virginia
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On the other hand, McAuliffe, a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has became one of the most prolific governors on the fundraising circuit. He should have no problem connecting with donors if he runs for president. During his 2013 election run, McAuliffe raised an eye-popping $37 million, including a $1.7 million contribution from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA. His campaign also received $1.6 million from liberal billionaire Tom Steyer's PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee. (Steyer himself said this week that he would not run for president in 2020, after months of speculation that he was gearing up for a campaign.)

Most of McAuliffe's campaign money at the time came from outside the state, with $25 million coming from donors beyond Virginia's borders.

In an interview with MSNBC's Ari Melber on Thursday, McAuliffe, a centrist who was also a business executive before he became governor, defended the work he did to improve Virginia's economy. He said there's a 50 percent chance he will run in 2020. "I'm looking at it. I'd say today 50-50. I've got to make some more decisions on it but I'm looking at it very seriously," he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington, at the 2018 WEF in Davos, Switzerland.
Adam Galica | CNBC

Inslee, the governor of Washington, and Bullock, the governor of Montana, are in positions similar to Hickenlooper in the fundraising game.

The Washington governor told The Atlantic that he's "laying the groundwork" for a 2020 campaign earlier this month. Since his days in the House of Representatives, Inslee has become a strong fundraiser. In his five races for public office, he has brought in a combined $24 million, records show. Still, $22 million of that haul came from within the state of Washington.

Inslee's campaign staff quietly launched his Vision PAC in October. The latest filing shows he's raised just over $112,000. The PAC spent $9,000 on strategic consulting from AK Consulting, a firm based in Seattle and another group, JR Consulting, for communications consulting, along with other expenditures. He is reportedly preparing to go to the early primary state of New Hampshire to headline a fundraiser at the end of the month.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) attends a meeting of the Board of Land Commissioners in the State Capitol building in Helena on August 20, 2018.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

Bullock brought in $3.2 million during his 2016 re-election bid, with $2.1 million coming from Montana and $1.1 million from out of state.

The polls have not been kind to the governors in the early buildup to the next Democratic primary, and they have a long way to go to become household names within the party. According to a recent CNN poll asking Democrats whom they prefer to be their party's nominee in 2020, all four governors hover around 1 percent of the vote.