Wall Street executives have heard from several potential 2020 Democratic candidates for president, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, as recently as last month, CNBC has learned.
The latest developments come as the Democrats' campaign to unseat Republican Donald Trump begins a year before the first contests of the presidential primary season, with contenders attempting to line up backing from donors and fundraisers.
The revelation of communication between Wall Street donors and possible Democratic candidates threatens to exacerbate tension between the liberal wing of the party, which is increasingly outspoken against the influence of corporate money in politics, and moderates who are seen as more business-friendly. A CNBC report last week about New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's outreach to Wall Street triggered outrage on the left.
Billionaire and Blackstone Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Gray; Robert Wolf, CEO and founder of economic advisory firm 32 Advisors, and Mark Gallogly, a founder of private investment firm Centerbridge Partners, are just a few of the Democratic financiers who have spoken with 2020 hopefuls about a wide range of topics, including the upcoming campaign, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Wolf, a former advisor to former President Barack Obama, including as a member of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said he had been in touch with 2020 hopefuls — but declined to name the individual lawmakers.
"I am meeting with possible candidates often but don't want to name names until he or she announces," Wolf said in a text message to CNBC.
However, people familiar with the talks say Wolf's contact list has included Gillibrand, along with New Jersey's Booker and California's Harris. Wolf has a history of backing the three senators. He wrote a check to Gillibrand for $2,700 in 2018 and donated to Harris' campaign in 2016. In 2014, he backed Booker's Senate campaign.
Wolf did not return follow-up requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for Harris did not return repeated requests for comment.
Booker also recently met with a top New York donor who described the encounter to CNBC on the condition of anonymity. "I had tea a while ago with Cory," this person said. "The meetings aren't officially about running, but of course they are about running in 2020." Booker seemed to be trying to see whether this financier could help raise money for a White House run, according to the person.
A spokesman for Booker did not reply to emails requesting comment.
Gray, a billionaire and top Democratic donor, has had numerous private discussions with Gillibrand and other lawmakers who might be looking to jump into the race, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Last year, Gray contributed $2,700 to Gillibrand's primary and general re-election campaigns, the most an individual donor can give directly to a campaign. In 2015, he donated the same amount to Booker. Gray also gave $600,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, a group dedicated to helping Democrats win the majority in the U.S. Senate, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Representatives for Blackstone and Gillibrand declined to comment.
Gallogly, another former member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, has spoken with some of the same senators, according to people with direct knowledge of the exchanges. Gallogly has been in contact through email and other means with Gillibrand, and almost every other possible candidate considering a run for the White House, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said. The financier, however, has yet to hear from Harris and Booker about how they would craft a 2020 campaign, this person added.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a vocal critic of Wall Street who is considering a run for the White House, thanked Gallogly for his support in a voicemail after he won his re-election campaign in 2018, according to a person familiar with the outreach, but the two have not been in touch about the 2020 election. Gallogly gave at least $2,700 to Brown's campaign committee. Brown is the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee.
A person close to Brown insisted that the senator has not been seeking Wall Street backers. The person added that the senator will continue to work the national fundraising circuit regardless of whether he runs for president, because Ohio is a battleground state that will be saturated with campaign ads. Trump won Ohio in 2016, after Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012.
"I can guarantee you Wall Street hates the idea of a Sherrod Brown White House," the person close to the senator said.
During a recent interview with CNBC's John Harwood, Brown criticized the influence Wall Street has on Congress.
"What's rotten on Wall Street is the influence the financial services industry continues to exert on Congress. Whenever they want something, they almost always get it," Brown said in November.
Gallogly and a spokeswoman for Brown declined to comment.
Regulations and relationships
Beyond Brown, some of the potential 2020 candidates who have reached out to Wall Street donors have a history of voting in favor of tighter regulations on the financial industry.
Gillibrand voted in support of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in the wake of the financial crisis. Last year, she voted against a measure that rolled back some Dodd-Frank regulations. She also co-sponsored the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act of 2017 and backed the idea of a financial transaction tax, first introduced by Vermont's left-wing Sen. Bernie Sanders, another potential 2020 candidate. As a member of the House of Representatives, Gillibrand voted against the bank bailout during the 2008 financial crisis.
Booker and Harris also voted against the Dodd-Frank rollback bill.
However, that hasn't stopped some financial executives from backing the lawmakers. When he first ran for Senate in 2014, Booker was the top recipient of donations from the securities and investment industry, which contributed $2.2 million directly to his campaign, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In 2018, Gillibrand and Brown brought in just over $1 million from those people in the industry.
The campaign organization for Harris, meanwhile, has received at least $765,000 from the securities and investment industry over the past two years.
Democrats who run in the 2020 presidential campaign will likely face intense scrutiny over their links to Wall Street and will have their ability to attract small-dollar donors tested.
Compared with Gillibrand, Booker has had the weakest track record in appealing to small donors, who traditionally give under $200. The Center for Responsive Politics shows that in 2014, the New Jersey senator's campaign received $1.1 million in small contributions compared with $14 million from large individual donations.
In contrast, Gillibrand raised over 30 percent of her contributions in 2018 through small donors, totaling just over $6 million in checks worth under $200.
Gillibrand's track record with small donors didn't spare her from liberal backlash after CNBC reported that she had been in touch with financial executives about a possible 2020 campaign, however.
Justice Democrats, a political action committee that helped liberal freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get elected, accused Gillibrand of focusing too much on business executives instead of the working class. The PAC has pledged not to take any corporate PAC or lobbyist money.
Nate Silver, editor in chief of polling and political analysis website FiveThirtyEight, noticed on his own Twitter feed that the reaction to the story from Democratic voters could spell trouble for Gillibrand.
Gillibrand, for her part, responded to the story on Twitter. While she did not deny she had the discussions, she insisted that her record against the financial industry stands for itself.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another possible 2020 candidate who recently opened an exploratory committee for president, decided to close her joint fundraising committee in an effort to appeal to the grassroots organizers.
Despite the left's outcry against Wall Street money, political financiers say candidates are going to have to appeal to both the grassroots and big donors in order to compete with Trump's massive campaign war chest.
The president has raised over $100 million through his campaign and two joint fundraising committees that work in tandem with the Republican National Committee. The Trump Victory committee is one of the president's donor pools, which includes elite megadonors such as Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman and conservative Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel.
"I think you have to do both or you're not going to have a campaign," said a Democratic contribution "bundler" who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If you don't take big money at all, that's going to be a problem. I would be very surprised if I saw anybody say, 'I'm only doing the low end.' They are probably going to start with that."