Democratic donors slam Howard Schultz for flirting with an independent 2020 campaign

  • As Schultz prepares to hold his book tour's first leg in New York after he announced plans to consider running for president as an independent, Democratic financiers and strategists in the city are criticizing his move.
  • "This is a pathetic vanity project, and Howard Schultz better start laying off the espresso," Robert Zimmerman, a leading party bundler, tells CNBC.
  • Some members of the New York donor class, including on Wall Street, are casting doubt on whether Schultz will even run. Some argue a Schultz campaign would hurt the Starbucks brand, as well.

Top Democratic donors in New York aren't happy with former Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz for saying he was "seriously thinking about running for president" as a "centrist independent."

As Schultz prepares to hold his book tour's first leg in New York just after he announced his presidential aspirations, Democratic financiers and strategists in the city are already criticizing his potential campaign.

"This is a pathetic vanity project, and Howard Schultz better start laying off the espresso," Robert Zimmerman, a leading party bundler, told CNBC on Monday. "I would not take lightly the inevitable hashtags popping up saying 'no Starbucks, no Schultz.'"

Some members of the New York donor class, including on Wall Street, are casting doubt on whether Schultz will even run. Some argue the move would cost the Democratic Party in its 2020 battle with President Donald Trump — and hurt the Starbucks brand.

The perceived potential for Schultz inadvertently helping Trump has already triggered some calls for action against the company, with social media hashtags such as "Boycott Starbucks" making the rounds on Twitter.

Nathan Lerner, co-founder of Draft Beto, a group looking to persuade former Rep. Beto O'Rourke to run for president, said in a tweet that he would be boycotting Starbucks. Lerner threatened to protest at Starbucks stores if Schultz were to run as an independent.

Orin Kramer, a New York hedge fund manager who backed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for president, believes that a Schultz independent candidacy will anger urban voters who dislike Trump and will lead to them walking away from buying their coffee at Starbucks.

"Wouldn't want to own Starbucks if he did it," Kramer said in an interview. "Starbucks is disproportionately in urban areas, and 40 percent of urban areas hate this guy [Trump]. "This guy is giving Trump a gift, and there is no contrary interpretation."

Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of State under Obama, warned Schultz that if he ran as an independent, the consequences could be dire for Democrats.

"He has every right to do what he wants to do, but make no mistake this is exceptionally unhelpful and could have dire consequences," Nides told CNBC. "He will pull votes maybe from moderate Democrats, and who knows what will happen to left-leaning Democrats."

Jane Hartley, a former U.S. ambassador to France under Obama and a long-time party financier, was blunt with her criticism. This is "bad for Dems. In the end I don't think he will do it," she said.

The backlash against Schultz among the Democratic donor class could put him at a significant disadvantage, even if he funds his campaign with his own money. In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes," Schultz seemed to keep the door open to mainly self-funding his campaign operation but didn't rule out turning to donors for what will likely be an expensive campaign.

"I'll say it this way. We'll be fully resourced to do what's necessary," Schultz said after he was asked if he'd be willing to spend what it takes to win.

Schultz, whose new book is called "From the Ground Up: My Journey to Reimagine," has a net worth of about $3.4 billion, according to Forbes.

A spokeswoman for Schultz did not return a request for comment.

Political strategists in New York, particularly those who are close to a variety of party benefactors, also have been privately questioning Schultz's intention if he runs.

One strategist, who used to work for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration and spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity, said a Schultz independent candidacy would be a double-edged sword.

"I think it's a real problem," this former Cuomo advisor said. "First there is the math problem, where it will be an empirical fact that he divides the electorate to Trump's advantage. Second, is the messaging issue. He's equating Medicare to the Trump wall. If he gets into the race, he will gain no votes but with comments like that, he will be doing potentially irreparable damage to Democratic nominees."

Schultz told "60 Minutes" that some Democrats' proposals for universal health care "is something as false as the wall" and something "the country cannot afford."

Count the Democratic National Committee among Schultz's critics.

In a statement first given to CNBC, a spokeswoman for the committee sought to create a clear dividing line between Democratic candidates for president and Schultz.

"We are focused on defeating Donald Trump, and anyone who shares that goal should vote for the Democrat nominee in 2020," the spokeswoman said.

CNBC did talk to one major Democratic player who didn't mind the notion of a Schultz run, however.

Alan Patricof, founder of private equity giant Greycroft and a long-time Democratic Party donor, argued that Schultz has plenty to bring to the table.

"I wouldn't underestimate Howard Schultz twice," he said in a televised interview with CNBC on Monday. "I think he's a formidable guy."

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