Democratic bundlers step up Draft Biden efforts amid signs VP may be edging closer to 2016 run

Michael Isikoff
·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After raising $1 million for Barack Obama during his two presidential runs, New York businessman Jon Cooper was exactly the kind of high-powered political “bundler” Hillary Clinton wanted on her team during this year’s run. 

 But after agreeing to serve as a “Hillstarter” — as the Clinton campaign had dubbed its elite fundraisers — Cooper sat down at his computer a few months ago to write a fundraising pitch for the former secretary of state … and froze. 

“I was trying to come up with a rationale for her candidacy — and I couldn’t do it,” Cooper tells Yahoo News. Clinton, he concluded, was “too calculating, too cautious, too controlled.” 

So now Cooper, who owns a large manufacturing firm on suburban Long Island and had previously raised money for Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, has signed on as the national finance chair for the Draft Biden Committee — one of a small but growing group of Democratic moneymen that is trying to prod the vice president into shaking up the Democratic race by making one more run for the presidency. 

“When we started a few months ago, everybody thought we were tilting at windmills,” said William Pierce, executive director of the Draft Biden committee, a super-PAC that has raised more than $110,000 since last March and collected more than 180,000 signatures for online petitions. “But just in the last few days, we’re seeing a lot of momentum. And if [Biden’s] answer was no, he could have shut this down like that.” 

The group expects its momentum to continue this week with an announcement of an expanded staff, while another newly enlisted veteran Democratic bundler, Howie Mandel, a Los Angeles physician, hosts a Draft Biden event at a West Hollywood restaurant. Mandel said he has invited Democratic fundraisers and community leaders — including a few prominent Hollywood figures — to talk about a “how we can convince the vice president to run.” 

Driving that conversation: new poll numbers showing Clinton’s standing steadily slipping since she announced her candidacy last April, with 57 percent of the electorate now viewing her as neither honest nor trustworthy, according to a Quinnipiac survey. “We don’t know what she really believes. She’s not trustworthy, and she’s not authentic,” Mandel said. “I think there’s an 80 percent chance she’s going to implode.” 

 At Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn, campaign officials are closely monitoring the Draft Biden effort, tapping their own sources to determine the vice president’s intentions — and in an effort to reassure donors, aggressively pushing back on the poll numbers. “She’s been under relentless focus and under a lot of attacks for the past few months,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director. 

But questions about honesty and trustworthiness are beside the point, she argues. “That’s not the question voters have in their heads when they decide who to vote for,” she says. “It’s who is fighting for me, and who has solutions for the American people. She’s still the person who is most likely to be the next president.” 

Whether Biden will actually make the plunge — and whether he can prevail if he did — is still very unclear. The vice president, 72, has told aides he plans to decide by the end of the summer, a timetable that was pushed back at least in part by the tragic death of his son Beau from cancer. 

“The Biden family is going through a difficult time right now,” said Kendra Berkoff, the vice president’s press secretary. “Any speculation about the views of the vice president or his family about his political future is premature and inappropriate.” She added in a later email that Biden “is focused on his family and immersed in his work.” 

But donors like Cooper and Mandel — as well as political operatives and allies — are seeing increasing signs that the vice president is edging closer. Family members, especially his son Hunter and his wife, Kathleen, have been quietly promoting the idea that he’s prepared to enter the race, according to multiple sources who have spoken to them. Beau Biden also urged his father to run shortly before he died in May, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

And just in the past few weeks, the vice president has stepped up his public and political events, showing up at three Democratic Party fundraisers (in Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco), touring a North Hollywood manufacturing firm with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to promote a minimum wage hike and announcing the reconstruction of La Guardia airport in New York (with Gov. Andrew Cuomo). 

More importantly, there are signs that Biden himself has assessed Hillary Clinton as far less the juggernaut than she initially appeared. “He told me there’s a lot more vulnerability on her part than most people realize,” says one top-tier Democratic Party fundraiser, who discussed the idea of a presidential run with Biden several months ago, before his son’s death, and who asked not to be identified publicly. If Clinton’s poll numbers don’t improve by the end of next month, the fundraiser said, “I think there’s a better than 50-50 chance he runs.” The prospect of another Biden presidential candidacy (he previously ran in 1988 and 2008) has galvanized a small coterie of former aides and advisers who, in various ways, direct and indirect, are offering encouragement should he decide to run.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton during a campaign stop at Florida International University in Miami. (Photo: Gaston De Cardenas/AP)

“I personally think he’s the most qualified person of anybody that’s running,” said Mark Gitenstein, a longtime top Biden aide and adviser (and former U.S. ambassador to Romania under President Obama) who has donated $1,000 to the Draft Biden Committee. “He’s been in the middle of every decision [of the Obama presidency], and if he were elected, he would have more experience in dealing with the Hill than anybody in history, including Lyndon Johnson.” Still, although they stay in close touch, Gitenstein says he has not spoken directly with the vice president on the subject and is uncertain where he will come down. “I don’t think he’s made up his mind,” said Gitenstein. “It’s a tough time to be making a decision like this.”

And nobody is underestimating the obstacles that a Biden presidential campaign could face — taking on a formidable, well-funded Clinton campaign apparatus with a candidate (Biden would be 74 years old at the next inauguration) who would be difficult to present as a fresh face. Biden’s first presidential run, in 1988, imploded after disclosures that he had plagiarized a campaign speech from British politician Neil Kinnock. His campaign in 2008, when he competed against both Clinton and Barack Obama, fared little better: He dropped out after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucus with 1 percent of the vote.

“Right now, Hillary Clinton is our candidate. I’m sticking with her,” said Louis Susman, a major-league Democratic bundler (and President Obama’s former ambassador to the Court of St. James), after he created a brief stir in the political world last week when he was spotted having breakfast with Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s chief of staff.

Would he be prepared to jump ship were Biden to enter the race? “I don’t answer hypotheticals,” he responded, before hanging up his cellphone.

In the meantime, some Democratic bundlers and longtime Biden backers are doing what they can to make the vice president’s decision easier — driven not just by their loyalty to the vice president but by a sense that he (more than anybody else in the race) is best situated to preserve the Obama legacy. “I’m really hungry for the kind of energy we had during the Obama campaign,” said Shiva Sarram, a New Canaan, Conn., fundraiser who just signed on with Draft Biden last week and who raised $400,000 for then Sen. Obama at an event in her backyard during the 2008 campaign.

Sarram is among a number of Draft Biden bundlers who said they have been turned off by recent disclosures raising questions about Clinton’s ethics. “The email server issue, that was really upsetting,” she said. “I literally don’t understand why, when you are secretary of state, emails were erased. Why was there a need to have a personal server in home?”

Chris McCreight, who was a co-founder of Brooklyn for Obama and has also joined the Draft Biden effort, said he was bothered most about the huge donations that flowed to the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments and corporations while Clinton was secretary of state. “I’m a big ‘get the money out of politics’ guy,” he said. “That bothers me.”

Another big factor for some in the Draft Biden effort is the concern that the main competitor to Clinton who has emerged so far, Sen. Bernie Sanders, is pushing her and the party too far to the left, endangering its prospects in the general election. Mike Spencer, the mayor of Newport, Del., showed up at a recent Draft Biden “Day of Action” event in Wilmington in large part because “I want to elect Democrats. I don’t want a litmus test from the left,” which he says “these progressive darlings” like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are imposing. To be sure, all these efforts are predicated on Biden’s ultimately deciding to run, which remains unknowable at this point. But, notes Sarram, “No one has said, ‘Stop it, he’s not running. You’re wasting your time.’ That to me is the strongest signal.”