LOS ANGELES — Pete Buttigieg was attacked by his presidential primary opponents as an inexperienced politician beholden to wealthy donors during the sixth Democratic debate Thursday, after weeks of steadily rising in the polls. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor had not previously faced such direct attacks during a primary debate.
Buttigieg’s campaign was expecting him to take more heat on the stage at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and the incoming fire was unleashed by several candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But the front-runner in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden, seemed only too happy to sit out the battle, walking away from his lectern at one point and turning his back to the audience.
The fireworks started mid-debate when a weeks-long feud between Buttigieg and Warren over raising money from wealthy donors and holding secret fundraisers erupted into a heated clash, with the two candidates sparring over how to marshal the resources to take on President Donald Trump next year, the future of the Democratic Party and, of all things, a “wine cave.”
“The mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine,” Warren said, referring to a closed-door fundraiser on Sunday for Buttigieg’s campaign, which was held in a ritzy Napa Valley wine cave that featured a chandelier with 1,500 Swarvoski crystals. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren continued.
The fundraiser was hosted by Kathryn Hall, the wealthy co-owner of the winery, who has donated millions to the Democratic Party and was rewarded in the 1990s with an ambassadorship to Austria under President Bill Clinton.
Warren called on Buttigieg and the rest of the Democratic candidates to promise, as she has, not to hand out ambassadorships to wealthy donors. If “you can’t stand up to the wealthy and well-connected when it’s relatively easy when you’re a candidate, then how can the American people believe you’re going to stand up to the wealthy and well-connected when you’re president and it’s really hard?” Warren asked.
In response, Buttigieg pointed out that he is personally less wealthy than the other candidates on stage, including Warren. “I am literally the only person on this stage who’s not a millionaire or a billionaire,” he said, citing a Forbes analysis. He then shot back by warning that Democrats could lose to Trump if they declined to accept help from those who are willing to join in the fight. Warren herself, Buttigieg noted, held closed-door fundraisers when she campaigned for the Senate and transferred some of that money from her 2018 Senate account to support her 2020 presidential bid.
The audience seemed to come alive following an hour of dry, policy-laden debate in which few candidates engaged each other. The latter half of the night was far more lively and signaled a sharper tone to the campaign just five weeks before the Iowa caucuses, in early February.
Both Buttigieg and Warren signaled the coming battle over campaign finance in the weeks leading up to the debate during separate appearances on the campaign trail. Warren has proposed big changes to the nation’s campaign finance laws, framing her White House bid as a structural effort to root out corruption in Washington, D.C. In response to criticism that his campaign received, Buttigieg recently began allowing media access to his fundraisers. Last week, his campaign also released a list of “bundlers” who have contributed to his campaign ― typically wealthy supporters of a candidate who not only donate their own cash but also help collect donations from others.
The spat between Warren and Buttigieg quickly evolved into a debate between progressive candidates Warren and Sanders — who have eschewed private, high-dollar fundraisers — and Buttigieg and Biden, who both rely on wealthy bundlers to raise money at high-dollar events. (Biden’s campaign said earlier on Thursday that it would disclose its bundlers — but it did not specify when.)
“My good friend Joe … he’s received contributions from 44 billionaires,” Sanders said before turning to Buttigieg. “Pete, you only got 39 billionaires contributing.”
“We look forward to you — I know you’re an energetic guy, and a competitive guy — to seeing if you can take on Joe on that issue,” Sanders joked.
Klobuchar jumped in with a jab of her own at Buttigieg by noting the South Bend mayor’s lack of experience in winning major elections. “If you want to talk about the capacity to win,” Buttigieg responded, “try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.” (Pence, the former governor of Indiana, is known for opposing LGBTQ rights.)
But Buttigieg didn’t win a statewide election in Indiana, Klobuchar noted. When he ran for state treasurer of Indiana in 2010, she said, he lost badly to his Republican opponent.
Overall, every candidate on stage seemed more prepared at Thursday night’s debate. Biden’s answers, in particular, were much crisper than during his previous performances, which had prompted critics and rivals alike to question his age and mental acuity. Klobuchar may have had her best debate night yet, repeatedly eliciting laughter from the audience.
“I have never even been to a wine cave!” the Minnesota Democrat said at one point in exasperation as Warren and Buttigieg sniped at each other about wealthy donors.
This story has been updated with more information on Warren’s fundraising.