Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

2020 elections

Obama diplomats throw in with Buttigieg

The young mayor has nearly two dozen former ambassadors lending heft to his campaign and mining their elite networks for new supporters.

Pete Buttigieg has enlisted an army of elite supporters to argue that the 37-year-old mayor of a small city has what it takes to be the leader of the free world.

Nearly two dozen former ambassadors who worked for President Barack Obama abroad see a commander in chief in the South Bend, Ind., mayor and are using their fundraising connections and stature in elite Democratic circles to build support for him. The campaign is currently discussing plans to deploy Buttigieg’s team of former ambassadors to woo influential undecided Democrats to his team, according to multiple people with knowledge of those discussions.

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Buttigieg’s diplomatic support extends to the rank and file, as well: Employees of the State Department and agencies within it, along with their spouses, have given more money to Buttigieg’s campaign (over $62,000) than to any other Democrat running for president in 2020, according to analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The diplomatic support is part of a balancing act for Buttigieg, who is running as a candidate of generational change with big ideas but a relatively thin political résumé. As he ramps up his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the ambassadorial support balances Buttigieg’s youth with experience, giving him a stamp of approval from experienced and credentialed party insiders.

“He’s young, untested, mayor of a smallish town,” said Erin Pelton, a former foreign service officer and director of communications for multiple Obama-era ambassadors to the United Nations. “So to surround yourself with the diplomatic equivalent of generals is a good way to show that you’re serious.”

“At a time when [State Department] morale is low, his youth and freshness in the national political scene are pluses,” said retired State Department veteran Laura Kennedy, a career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Turkmenistan in the George W. Bush administration. She also said Buttigieg being the first LGBT presidential candidate would likely appeal to State Department employees. “As a group which as a bureaucratic culture is dedicated to upholding values such as human rights, his status as am LGBT candidate might … [be] a badge of a crusader, someone who has the courage of his convictions.”

Most Americans couldn’t pick a single U.S. ambassador out of a lineup, and the ambassadors backing Buttigieg readily admit their support won’t be game-changing endorsements to voters picking a presidential candidate. But their political and policy experience can be helpful to a campaign, especially an upstart one — and many of them have deep connections in Democratic politics, often as big money fundraisers.

“Most of the ambassadors got to be ambassadors because they were deeply involved in Obama’s campaign. So A, they know how to raise money, and B, they know the grassroots politics,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a Buttigieg supporter and former ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. “We’re not famous enough or important enough to build big events around. But you can build little events that say, ‘the former ambassador to Austria is going to kick off the door-knocking.’”

In the coming weeks, former ambassadors Bill Eacho, Tod Sedgwick and Robert Holleyman will all co-headline fundraisers for Buttigieg, according to invitations obtained by POLITICO.

The former diplomats have also helped connect staff members to the Buttigieg campaign.

“It could be a former ambassador with a great relationship with a former staffer to tell them to work for this campaign. What it is is historical relationships,” said Rufus Gifford, Barack Obama’s 2012 finance director and a former ambassador to Denmark, who has made maximum donations to Buttigieg and a few other candidates.

On the Buttigieg campaign, former ambassadors supporting him have advised on both domestic and foreign policy. Beyer helped contribute to Buttigieg’s mental health platform. Others have been involved in the 300-person foreign policy working group that have helped shape Buttigieg’s foreign policy platform — an early priority for the South Bend mayor.

They have kept in touch with the campaign through Doug Wilson, the former assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs in the Obama administration, as well as other senior Buttigieg campaign officials in charge of policymaking for the campaign.

“Pete Buttigieg has a lot of credibility in the military — he served in the military,” Sedgwick said, cautioning though that he “needs to show more creds in foreign policy terms. He has quite a kitchen cabinet of national security stars.”

Early in Buttigieg’s campaign, John Phillips, a former ambassador to Italy, and a small set of former ambassadors held a fundraiser for the South Bend mayor. That group was impressed enough with Buttigieg to connect him with more donors and former ambassadors, merging their personal networks with Buttigieg’s growing campaign.

“I think a lot of peoples’ view about Buttigieg, among ambassadors, is very very impressed with him and his voice ought to be heard,” Phillips recalled. “So we called our friends who are ambassadors to be co-sponsors and that’s how we got, I think six or seven or eight [ambassadors] on the first fundraiser.”

Phillips added, though, that ambassadors supporting various candidates in the 2020 primary field are often not wedded to just one candidate. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also has significant support from former Obama administration ambassadors.

“A number of the ambassadors are supporting several candidates initially during this primary phase, it’s not necessarily just one person because we have so many that are running,” Phillips said, noting he’s supporting former Vice President Joe Biden as well as Buttigieg and “maybe Elizabeth Warren.”

But for Buttigieg, the ambassadors’ support is more important because of his comparatively thin résumé.

“I think what’s interesting here is that people are gravitating to his campaign given that you have Joe Biden, with whom many people in the national security establishment have worked, and he’s a known commodity. But you do see this other, up-and-coming candidate who has gotten a lot of interest,” said Pelton. “Because the national security establishment seems interested in him, it’s no surprise that they’ve tried to capitalize on that as a way to buck up his bona fides.”

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