Washington has doubled its giving to presidential candidates from four years ago, with Democrat Joe Biden lapping President Donald Trump, especially among megadonors.
Last month alone, Biden hoovered up nearly four times Trump’s donations in the state, bringing his total take here to $26 million compared to Trump’s $10 million, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
And that’s just direct contributions to the candidates, which are limited to $5,600 per person.
Millions more flowed through allied political committees, including the Biden Victory Fund and Trump Victory Fund — which can accept six-figure checks — tapping the reliable local profit centers of coffee, airplanes and big tech.
The explosion in donations reflects the intense interest and anxiety in the presidential race at a distinctively divisive moment in American politics.
While losing in the overall money chase here, Trump shows pockets of strong geographical support — he outraised Biden in 372 of the state’s 555 ZIP codes, a Seattle Times analysis of FEC data shows.
But some historically generous GOP donors are sitting out this election, or flipping sides by giving to Biden, reflecting fatigue among some mainline Republicans with the often-chaotic Trump presidency.
Biden leads Trump in fundraising nationally as well with a total of nearly $1.4 billion, including $437 million from PACs. Trump has raised $595.6 million with $260 million in outside support for a total of $856 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
At a time when pandemic has left millions jobless and struggling financially, spending on all federal contests in 2020 is on pace to reach nearly $11 billion — obliterating past spending records by a wide margin, according to the center.
Giving to presidential campaigns by Washington residents in 2020 has already reached $52 million — more than double the $24 million from four years ago. That includes donations in the Democratic primaries before Biden secured the nomination.
Washington’s tradition of supporting Democratic presidential candidates — at the ballot box and with checkbooks — is seen clearly in Biden’s edge here among megadonors.
His campaign and closely affiliated committees have pulled in at least three dozen contributions of $100,000 or more, compared with seven for Trump. Those figures are sure to rise as more donations pour in during the final weeks of the race.
Top Biden donors include former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who with his wife, Sheri, gave more than $825,000 to Biden Victory in September. Retired Microsoft executives Linda and David Cornfield have given more than $1.3 million. Former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and his wife, Janet, kicked in $750,000.
For Trump, the list includes billionaire investor Ken Fisher, who with his wife, Sherrilyn, gave $250,000 to Trump Victory. Local aviation pioneer Joe Clark also gave $250,000 shortly before his death in March. And a Clark County business coach, Brandon Dawson, also gave $250,000.
People who write big campaign checks may be motivated by what they believe is right for the country, but their largesse can also be self-serving, leading to political access or coveted patronage appointments, such as ambassadorships.
Struggling to compete in swing states, Trump has all but ceded Washington and its 12 Electoral College votes. The prospect of losing the state is nothing new for Republicans: GOP presidential candidates haven’t won in more than three decades. Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 16 points here in 2016.
But in the past, Washington had at least remained a reliable cash machine for GOP presidential contenders such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, with wealthy businesspeople shelling out six-figure checks to their political action committees.
Such support is less evident for Trump, and the defection or absence of formerly generous benefactors is a new obstacle for the GOP.
Mobile phone pioneer Craig McCaw, a billionaire and historically reliable Republican donor, gave $10,000 in September to the Biden Victory Fund, according to FEC filings. He did not return a phone message seeking comment.
While relatively modest, McCaw’s Biden donation and lack of Trump support stand in sharp contrast to past years, particularly 2012, when he donated $700,000 to a Republican SuperPAC supporting Romney. (Though mostly supporting Republicans, McCaw has donated to Democrats in the past as well; in 2008 he gave to both Barack Obama and John McCain for president.) Dozens of other Washington business figures who supported the pro-Romney PAC have declined to similarly boost Trump, FEC records show.
Clyde Holland, CEO of Holland Partner Group, a major real estate developer based in Vancouver, Clark County, gave more than $300,000 to the Trump Victory Fund four years ago.
But this year, Holland has stayed conspicuously out, giving nothing to Trump’s 2020 reelection bid while continuing to support Republicans in congressional races and donating to the state GOP. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Hossein Khorram, fundraising co-chair for the Trump campaign in Washington, acknowledges some traditional Republican donors have recoiled from the president, but said Trump is attracting support from working-class people.
“We used to get the elitists. Here the elitists are not helping Trump. Who is supporting Trump is an average American,” said Khorram, an apartment developer who has donated more than $50,000 in addition to co-chairing state Trump fundraising along with U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse.
Indeed, the average contribution size to Trump’s campaign from Washington donors is $79, compared with $125 for Biden.
Among the Trump small-dollar donors are a mechanic for the U.S. Postal Service, a recreational marijuana dispensary owner and a judge on the Washington Board of Insurance Appeals, FEC records show.
Those small dollar gifts are powered in part by a relentless bombardment of daily text messages from the Trump campaign, which read like a hard pitch from a pushy salesman.
“Pres. Trump. VP Pence. Eric. Don. Lara. They ALL TEXTED YOU. Why haven’t you donated? The President needs you. Can you chip in just $10?” read a typical appeal sent last week.
Democratic appeals are similarly urgent. “Did you read Pres. Obama’s email? The Democratic Unity Fund needs supporters like you. Donate $10 before Wednesday,” a recent message implored.
David Nierenberg is among the donors who have refused to back Trump. He was a national fundraising co-chair for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, but endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and describes himself as “politically bisexual.”
He and his wife have donated more than $55,000 this year in support of Biden. “There are a lot of us who are just beyond disgust,” said Nierenberg, an investment manager from Camas, Clark County.
While Nierenberg said a robust two-party system is best for the country, he said Trump has shown no ability to lead, as shown by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are on a trajectory to have 300,000 to 400,000 dead Americans by the end of the year. What a record of disaster by a person who claims to be a brilliant manager,” he said.
Most of Biden’s top backers have long been Democratic Party benefactors, including Nick Hanauer, the Seattle venture capitalist who has prominently backed the $15 minimum wage movement and warned middle-class wage stagnation and income inequality is ruining the country.
“The choice between Joe Biden and the lying narcissistic sociopath that is our current president couldn’t be clearer,” Hanauer said. Biden wasn’t his first pick in the Democratic primary, Hanauer said, but he has come to believe he is an “excellent choice.”
By contrast, Trump’s loyalists praise the president’s tax policies and support for law enforcement. That includes some longtime business figures in Seattle, which the president has labeled an “anarchist jurisdiction” for allowing protesters to seize several city blocks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood this summer.
Longtime Seattle property owner Suzanne Burke, president of Fremont Dock Co., was among Trump’s few major Seattle donors in 2016, and is again backing him this year, donating more than $15,000.
“I’m very glad he recognizes that the business of the United States is business, and he’s been good on many of those subjects,” Burke said.
“What’s different about 2020 is COVID, and the lockdown of our businesses here in Seattle,” she added. “I want somebody very different from Gov. Inslee. I also don’t want the disorder and unlawfulness that’s going on in our city streets.”
Why they gave
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the 2020 campaign, Trump had not made Washington state a priority. He has not visited since being sworn in, unlike most previous presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike.
“They are investing in battleground states they can win easier,” said Khorram, who hosted a fundraiser earlier this month at his Clyde Hill home featuring former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.
An Iranian immigrant who has found success in America, Khorram says he is puzzled at accusations that Trump and his supporters are racist. “In America we are beyond race and religion and color. Let’s not make an issue that we don’t have,” he said.
Most of the major donors contacted by The Seattle Times declined to discuss their giving or agree to interviews, including Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO whose own potential candidacy last year flopped amid fierce criticism.
Now a top Biden donor, Schultz, in an open letter to friends and associates, called the Nov. 3 election a crucial moment in the nation’s history.
“What is at risk is democracy itself: Checks and balances. Rigorous debate. A free press. An acceptance of facts, not ‘alternate facts.’ Belief in science. Trust in the rule of law. A strong judicial system. Unity in preserving all of our rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he wrote.
Dawson, the Clark County business coach who serves as CEO of Cardone Ventures, donated $250,000 to Trump’s campaign on Sept. 25. One week later, he tweeted that he and his wife were attending a $2,800-per-plate fundraiser Oct. 1 at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, just hours before the president announced he was infected with COVID-19.
“No matter your politics, having the ability to meet any president is a lifetime opportunity. @ Trump National Golf Club Bedminster,” he wrote on Twitter.
Anti-Trump commenters blistered Dawson over his attendance, with one writing, “Sense of taste is the first to go.” Another asked, “You get the Covid yet?”
Dawson replied: “I feel great!” He expressed confidence Trump’s campaign team had taken adequate safety precautions. New Jersey health officials have since announced that no major outbreaks occurred as a result of the gathering.
Dawson’s social media feeds show he’s a fierce defender of Republican politics who sometimes criticizes high-profile Democrats, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. He did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Randy Treibel, of Kirkland, is among Trump’s top local donors in 2016 and 2020, with about $40,000 this cycle — but his political spending is a moneymaking venture.
He buys campaign merchandise featuring populist politicians — including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and resells it on Amazon.
That has repeatedly pushed Treibel over federal limits on donations, requiring campaigns to reimburse him more than $20,000, FEC records show — but he doesn’t have to return the merchandise. Treibel did not return messages seeking comment.
Megadonors are worth keeping an eye on not just to track election trends, but because their giving can also lead to political rewards.
As vice president in 2014, Biden swore in former Microsoft executive Suzi LeVine as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. LeVine and her husband, Eric, raised more than $2 million as bundlers for Obama’s presidential runs.
LeVine was later hired by Gov. Jay Inslee to head the state Employment Security Department, which has faced harsh criticism for falling victim to a massive unemployment fraud scheme. ESD has struggled to pay legitimate claims, leaving thousands of Washingtonians waiting for badly needed payments.
LeVine has continued to raise money for Biden this year as a deputy finance chair for the Democratic National Committee. Her husband is among the state’s top Biden Victory donors, giving $100,000.
After the 2016 election, Seattle and Portland hotelier Gordon Sondland, a prolific giver who’s donated to Democrats and Republicans representing the Pacific Northwest in Congress, contributed more than $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Trump tapped Sondland to serve as U.S. ambassador to the European Union. But their relationship soured amid Congressional impeachment hearings in which Sondland testified to a Trump “quid pro quo” linking U.S. military aid to Ukraine with the announcement of a probe into Biden and his son, Hunter.
Since returning to the U.S., Sondland has kept a low profile. There is no record of him donating to Trump’s 2020 reelection effort.