LOS ANGELES — Elizabeth Warren turned Pete Buttigieg’s wining and dining of donors, namely his recent fundraiser inside a swanky Napa Valley wine cave, into a punchy argument against his presidential campaign during Thursday’s Democratic debate.
“Billionaires in wine caves,” Warren said in the midst of a heated exchange at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, “should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Photos of the fundraiser, popping with crystal chandeliers, went viral this week, drawing virtual smirks online and a quick rebuke via a small-dollar fundraising plea from Bernie Sanders. With Buttigieg and Warren competing for similar high-education voters in Iowa, and with Buttigieg overtaking Warren in polls in the first caucus state, the Massachusetts senator saw an opportunity to burnish her populist credentials at the expense of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“So the mayor just recently held a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and [that] served $900-a-bottle wine,” Warren began — after obliquely referencing Buttigieg’s fundraising practices a moment earlier. “Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open-door, but this one was closed-door.”
The clash had been brewing for weeks. Warren, who does not hold high-dollar fundraisers, pushed for Buttigieg to open his donor events to reporters — a level of transparency that former vice president Joe Biden had been adhering to since the spring. Buttigieg’s campaign relented soon after, and a reporter actually attended a portion of the wine cave event, though the fundraiser was otherwise closed to those who hadn’t donated at least $500.
“Those doors shouldn’t be closed, and no one should be left to wonder what kind of promises are being made to the people that then pony up big bucks to be in the room,” Warren said earlier this month.
Buttigieg has parried Warren’s criticism by casting her as a hypocrite, given her personal wealth and her acceptance of high-dollar fundraisers before her presidential campaign. On the debate stage Thursday night, he also offered what amounted to an extended defense of pricey fundraisers, asserting that Democrats need all the help they can get if they want to beat President Donald Trump.
“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” Buttigieg said to Warren, who stood to his immediate left. “If I pledge never to be in the company of a progressive Democratic donor, I couldn’t be up here.”
Buttigieg then turned toward Warren with a personal challenge: “Senator,” he said, “your net worth is 100 times mine. Now supposing that you went home feeling the holiday spirit — and I know this isn’t likely, but stay with me — and decided to go on to PeteForAmerica.com and give the maximum allowable by law, $2,800, would that pollute my campaign because it came from a wealthy person? No, I would be glad to have that support.”
Warren shot back: “I do not sell access to my time.”
Buttigieg, who got the last word in the nearly five-minute exchange, then noted that Warren had transferred money from her Senate campaign to her presidential campaign — money she raised during a time in which she participated in “big-ticket fundraisers.” At the start of her 2020 bid, she transferred $10.4 million from her 2018 Senate campaign to her presidential account
“Did it corrupt you, senator?” Buttigieg asked dramatically. “Of course not!"
The Warren–Buttigieg rivalry intensified after last month’s Democratic debate in Atlanta, where sharper attacks on Buttigieg were expected but never materialized. In the weeks since, Warren, in addition to demanding he open his fundraisers, pushed for Buttigieg to released a list of the wealthy donors who've raised more than $25,000 for his campaign. Buttigieg did, but initially left off a large number of those “bundlers” — something his campaign said it would correct.
Warren also joined those calling on Buttigieg to disclose the clients he worked for years ago at McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm viewed skeptically by many progressives. Buttigieg, who had been concealing his McKinsey work because of a nondisclosure agreement, eventually received permission from the firm to release a list of client names and projects.
"A president was impeached last night because of corruption,” Kristen Orthman, Warren’s communications director, said in a Thursday night statement referencing Trump. “A Democratic nominee running on a defense of billionaires and lavish fundraisers in crystal wine caves, and in defense of the corrupt system that wealthy donors fuel, is a terrible risk for Democrats and very likely going to lose."
In an interview on CNN after the debate, Buttigieg said, "I'm not going to define my campaign by who we exclude or who we reject. This is a moment where we've got to bring together all of the resources that we can — because I can tell you over on the other side, Donald Trump and his buddies, they are not going to tie one hand behind their back."
Other candidates tried to get in on the wine cave fight.
Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, noted she had "never even been to a wine cave."
"I've been to the wind cave in South Dakota, which I suggest you go to," Klobuchar said of the national park, one of the longest caves in the world.
“You’ll see many more women running because they won’t have to shake the money tree in the wine cave,” said Andrew Yang.
Cory Booker, who did not qualify for Thursday’s debate, even weighed in from Iowa, where he is holding an all-access bus tour.
“If I had a cave in my house, I’d fill it with something better than wine,” said Booker, who doesn’t drink alcohol, suggesting a “sci-fi cave” tribute to Star Trek instead.