Pete Buttigieg seizes on top-tier status with 2nd-quarter fundraising blitz

Atlanta (CNN)When Pete Buttigieg got into the 2020 presidential race, his campaign was unknown, underfunded and hungry for any level of validation.

Months later, his outlook couldn't be more different.
Arguably more than any other Democratic presidential hopeful not named Joe Biden, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor has spent considerable time raising money at top-dollar, in-person fundraisers, crisscrossing the country to build a war chest big enough to fuel a campaign that has quickly -- and, in the eyes of even the mayor's top donors, unexpectedly -- jumped into the top tier of candidates just months after launching.
By the end of June, when the second fundraising quarter of 2019 closes, Buttigieg will have headlined roughly 70 in-person fundraisers, including 16 sizable "grassroots" events across the country that blend the size of a large campaign rally with the cash generation power of a fundraiser. Buttigieg, according to a campaign aide, now has roughly 20 full-time staffers working on fundraising, including those based in New York, California and the Washington, D.C., area.
    "I have seen it change over time because eight weeks ago, there was no fundraising operation, as far as I could tell," said Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia congressman and prolific Democratic fundraiser who endorsed Buttigieg in April. "It has come together really quickly."
    All of it is set to pay off: A host of top Buttigieg donors who have been in regular contact with the campaign tell CNN that they expect the mayor to raise more than $15 million in the second quarter. The Buttigieg campaign set a goal of $15 million -- just more than double the $7 million it raised in the first quarter -- at the start of April, according to a source familiar with the strategy. But the quarter has been more successful than anticipated and the campaign is working to exceed its goal in the final 18 days.
    A haul that size for a candidate who burst onto the scene mere months ago would be significant. Buttigieg's first quarter numbers placed him among the top handful of Democratic candidates. But a robust second quarter would elevate him into an even more enviable position among many of his rivals, some of whom are struggling to raise money.
    While some candidates, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are raising money almost exclusively online, Buttigieg's approach is far more aggressive, mixing online appeals with a particular focus on lengthy fundraising tours.
    In May, Buttigieg headlined a three-day visit to California that included more than 10 fundraisers, including one hosted by actress Gwyneth Paltrow and actor Bradley Whitford. Buttigieg welcomed each guest as they arrived at Paltrow's home, according to one attendee, and smiled as the movie star introduced him as a candidate "who's got the brains."
    He stood on the deck and answered questions for more than an hour, another attendee said, ranging from agricultural policy to the environment to immigration. Martin Sheen, who played President Josiah Bartlet on the television drama "The West Wing," was among those in the crowd, along with comedian Chelsea Handler and former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
    An earlier event in California was hosted by Brian Goldsmith, an investor and college classmate of Buttigieg's at Harvard. Attendees included Cooper Hefner, the son of Playboy Founder Hugh Hefner and the company's chief of global partnerships; artist Alex Israel; Hollywood writer and producer Scoop Wasserstein; and Lauren Schuker, a writer, and her husband, Hollywood producer Jason Blum.
    Buttigieg later in May headlined multiple events in New York and Chicago. And this week in the Washington area, Buttigieg has embarked on a three-day, six-event fundraising swing.
    Buttigieg will close out the second quarter with a frenetic sprint of fundraising, first headlining a string of events in Los Angeles, including an event hosted by Nicole Avant, a Hollywood bundler who helped raise roughly $800,000 for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, and a top-dollar fundraiser at the home of TV producer Ryan Murphy and his husband, David Miller, on June 19.
    The mayor then will travel to Boston on June 20 for an event hosted by prolific political donor Jack Connors, where organizers hope to raise as much as $1 million, according to donors invited to the event.
    Buttigieg campaign aides declined to comment on their prospective fundraising totals. But the mayor told reporters in Iowa this month that he was "cautiously optimistic" that he was going to post a strong number.
    His aides contend that they have put an increased focus on fundraising this quarter because the mayor entered the presidential race without a significant donor base, especially when compared with his competitors.
    "We are going up against people who have decades and decades of fundraising connections and experience and national networks," a campaign spokesperson said. "Pete came into this with no national fundraising network, and in a lot of instances he is meeting a lot for the first time, so we had to build a donor network."
    The time spent fundraising doesn't come without cost, however, as every hour spent in a donor's living room in California or New York picking up $2,800 checks is time the mayor isn't in early nominating states.

    The push and pull of fundraisers and events

    Candidates have long struggled with how much time to spend on the campaign trail versus fundraising.
    In 2016, Hillary Clinton's state-based operatives often quietly griped that the former secretary of state would have to leave an early-voting state to make a fundraiser, something they worried took her away from possible supporters.
    Buttigieg has faced this conundrum, too. A campaign aide tells CNN that something they work in regularly is "a scheduling balance" between fundraisers and open events.
    "We are making sure that we are hitting different cities and regions all around the country," the aide said.
    To make up for days-long stretches on the fundraising circuit early in his campaign, Buttigieg's fundraising operation -- led by Anthony Mercurio, his director of investment, and Swati Mylavarapu, his campaign's investment chair -- began to plan grassroots events in the same cities as top-dollar fundraisers.
    The grassroots events -- where would-be donors could pay as little as $25 to get in -- have more of a rally feel and are often filled with people who have never attended a campaign fundraiser before.
    Steven and Sara Johnson stood on the second floor of Buttigieg's recent event in Atlanta, enjoying their first political rally. The couple had just had their first child and the Buttigieg event was their third date night since welcoming the new member of their family.
    "You are donating to the campaign for the benefit of seeing him speaking," Steven Johnson said. "We didn't give it a second thought."
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