No one knows if remote political fundraisers will survive when things return to normal after the pandemic ends, or if they’ll feel like an unpleasant relic from a year everyone will want to forget and move past.
But for months, as candidates and causes have felt their way through an election year like no other, the virtual events have become ubiquitous, with checkerboarded Zoom conferences replacing ballrooms filled with dressed-up donors making cracks about rubber chicken.
As with most campaign activities and events held since the pandemic struck, in Colorado the major parties and their candidates have diverged somewhat in their approaches to fundraisers, with Democrats mostly opting for online gatherings and Republicans tending to meet up in person in recent months.
The state Democrats’ and Republicans’ premier annual fundraising dinners demonstrated the parties’ different takes, though the contrasts were also no doubt influenced by the calendar.
The Colorado Democrats held their virtual Obama Dinner in June, earlier in the pandemic, when restrictions were still tight on public gatherings, while the Republicans threw their in-person Centennial Dinner in September, after restrictions had loosened up and public gatherings weren’t forbidden.
Both parties moved their big dinners from April, when they’ve traditionally been scheduled adjacent to state assemblies, to take advantage of party members from all over the state converging for a day or two of politicking. For years, the GOP has had another major fundraising dinner in the fall, and that’s the one they held this year.
At the Democrats’ remote fundraiser, more than 800 donors ponied up full price to watch proceedings on computer or smartphone screens while supplying their own victuals, though without having to engage baby sitters or worry about parking or dry cleaning, some told Colorado Politics they came out about even.
The whole affair took about two hours, moving briskly through a lengthy list of speakers who paraded through the windows, most appearing for just a few minutes.
The keynote address was delivered by U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn Democrat thought to be a potential House speaker once Nancy Pelosi gives up the gavel.
He was joined on the virtual podium by more than a dozen prominent Colorado Democrats and nearly all the leading candidates from the recently concluded party’s presidential primary, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
The Republicans threw their Centennial Dinner on the last Saturday of September, at a GOP stalwart’s ranch in Sedalia, strictly adhering to state and county health guidelines regarding social distancing and capacity.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, who’d been slated to headline the state party’s dinner in April on the eve of the state assembly and convention, showed up to keynote the fall version, along with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is seeking a second term in one of the hottest Senate races in the country this year.
Unlike the Democrats’ virtual Obama Dinner, the Republicans’ shindig was closed to the press, so there isn’t much to report from the festivities.
Another virtual Democratic fundraiser held two days earlier, however, allowed Colorado Politics to tag along and take in the sights.
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, the Aurora Democrat who unseated Republican Mike Coffman in the Aurora-based 6th Congressional District two years ago and is facing a challenge from Republican Steve House this year, welcomed former Secretary of State Madeline Albright to an early afternoon Zoom fundraiser that drew around 100 attendees on Sept. 24.
Albright, who emigrated as a child with her family from Czechoslovakia, grew up in Denver when her father, diplomat Josef Korbel, established an enduring legacy at the University of Denver with the school of international studies that bears his name.
A distinguished professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Albright has shaped the way generations — including his own — view foreign policy and the way America exercises its authority in the world, Crow said, introducing his guest.
“My mother used to say on a regular basis there are two great cities in the world, Prague and Denver, and I agree with her,” Albright said. She related that Denver was where she became a citizen, when she was in high school, and said she still considers the city her home.
Albright said she was recently asked to describe herself in six words. “I said worried optimist, problem solver, grateful American,” she said during the nearly hourlong conversation.
She spoke quietly but with authority, spending most of her time answering questions from the fundraiser’s attendees, bringing a sort of shared intimacy to the event impossible to duplicate in a traditional hotel dinner.
“We all know that this is a difficult and consequential moment for our country,” she began. “Every day, we are reminded that we are facing a public health crisis, an economic collapse and a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism. We also have a potential crisis of democracy with a president who is determined to divide us and create doubt and confusion about the validity of this election.
“So we’ve got an awful lot of work to do at home, but what Congressman Crow understands is that there is no longer a distinction between domestic and foreign policy, because we know that the world outside has not stopped or slowed down to wait for us. In fact, we can already see how our competitors and adversaries are using this time of crisis to further tarnish America’s reputation and advance their own standing in the world.”
After describing how China is stepping into the vacuum created by the United States’ moves during the Trump administration, Albright made a case for reengaging in the next administration.
“We need leaders who can help the American people understand what is at stake. The United States cannot lead the world by withdrawing from it; we cannot be AWOL. The United States cannot improve global institutions by leaving them; we will have no leverage. The United States cannot deal effectively with multinational problems by pretending that we can protect our citizens by acting alone. This election will provide a fundamental test of democracy’s ability to deliver effective leadership, up and down the ticket,” she said.
Ethan Wade, Crow’s finance director and the fundraiser’s emcee, asked Albright to describe the significance of the ornate pin she was was wearing — her vast collection of pins and fondness for the stories behind them is well-known — noting that several attendees had teed up the question in the app’s chat window.
The pin, she said, was the emblem of the secretary of state, an eagle, and also included the year, “2020” under it.
“I think it’s very important time to think about making sure that the State Department is replenished and revived,” she said.
In response to a question about the fraught times ahead, Albright said: “I think that what we need to do is keep making clear what our Constitution says. We’re the world’s oldest democracy. We have to keep remembering that and speaking and fighting and being united in saying, ‘We know how to do this.’ The thing that is the most important — voting — as I said, is not a spectator sport.”
In conclusion, Albright made a case for staying optimistic and determined.
“The most important thing about democracy is a peaceful transition of power,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s a coup. And this country doesn’t do coups. What we do is understand the importance of the people participating. We have to think about this every single day from now on and understand that we are the people that make democracy work.”