- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - A single elevator could have accommodated the donors who recently gathered with Hillary Clinton at the Pritzker family home in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. Small in number, the group was big in largesse, contributing at least $1 million to help elect her and other Democrats this fall.

It would have taken a 37,000-seat stadium of Bernie Sanders fans each chipping in the campaign’s self-described average donation of $27 to raise that much money.

In her bid for the White House, Clinton is using every fundraising technique at her disposal, including salon-style gatherings with elite donors. Alongside small-donor efforts like email marketing and happy hours for young professionals, these intimate events are helping Clinton collect as much as $1 billion to battle Republican Donald Trump.

Clinton’s micro-fundraisers have landed big money: At least $19.5 million has flowed from 16 of them over the past two months, according to an Associated Press review.

But they also may open her up to criticism. Like her Democratic opponent Sanders, Trump eagerly depicts Clinton as bought and paid for by her wealthy contributors.

“The people who rigged the system are supporting Hillary Clinton because they know as long as she is in charge nothing’s going to change,” Trump told employees of an aluminum scrap metal factory in Monessen, Pennsylvania, earlier this week.

And as Clinton works to win over her party’s liberals after a divisive primary, the events may undercut her argument that she would be a strong proponent of campaign finance reform. Clinton says Democrats cannot unilaterally disarm in the midst of a tough presidential election, but that if elected she’d work to reduce big money in politics - a line President Barack Obama also used.

Both Clinton and Trump can solicit checks of $350,000 or more from a single donor thanks in part to a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that lifted an overall per-person cap on political contributions. That’s roughly triple what the individual donor limit was in 2012.

The resulting money flow could help the presidential candidates build robust on-the-ground voter contact and turnout operations, and pay for costly advertising. That is in addition to money that can be raised by super PACs. Those groups cannot directly coordinate their spending with the candidates and face no contribution limits whatsoever.

Clinton has made high-dollar fundraisers a staple of her campaign financing plan, frequently pairing a small pricey event with a larger one that has a lower entry fee. It’s similar to what Obama did in 2012, when he held small roundtables with big donors, sometimes just a few blocks from the White House at the Jefferson Hotel.

In addition to the 10-person Monday night confab at the home of J.B. and M.K. Pritzker - among the heirs to the Hyatt hotel fortune - Clinton has held at least nine other events with 15 or fewer donors, according to AP’s review. The candidate mingled Wednesday with 15 donors at trendy San Francisco brunch spot Boulettes Larder.

During a mid-May spree of intimate donor gatherings in and near New York City, Clinton scooped up at least $4 million. Her schedule included stops at hedge fund manager Orin Kramer’s home and financier Steven Rattner’s place.

Donors at the smallest events typically were asked to give at least $100,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund. Clinton also has entertained 50 or fewer donors at six more events where the minimum contribution generally was $33,400.

The campaigns can accept only $2,700 per donor for each election, but a victory fund allows candidates to ask for more and then parcel out the money to the campaign, national political party and dozens of state parties. Both Trump and Clinton have set up these kinds of accounts.

“When a candidate takes that much money, they become dependent on those donors and cannot afford to act against their wishes,” said Josh Silver, director of Represent.us, a group working to reduce the influence of money in politics through state-level public financing measures.

“This is exactly why Democrats and Republicans are falling short on the public interest demands of their constituents, and it has a lot to do with the remarkable popularity of Bernie Sanders.”

While raking in big cash, the Clinton campaign has emphasized its efforts to appeal to the kinds of small donors that fueled Sanders’ candidacy. It also has tried to give some small donors big-donor-level access by holding raffles for private dinners with her.

The AP was able to conduct its review of Clinton’s fundraisers because her campaign shares background information about its finance events. Trump’s campaign does not. Trump associates say he has held several small gatherings with bigger donors, including during a May swing through California.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Bykowicz on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bykowicz

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Keep track on how much Clinton and Trump are spending on television advertising, and where they’re spending it, via AP’s interactive ad tracker: http://elections.ap.org/content/ad-spending

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