KEENE, N.H.—Searching for an alternative to Hillary Clinton for 2016, some Democratic donors are meeting with potential challengers. Liberal activists are trying to coax Sen. Elizabeth Warren into running. Politicians not named Hillary Clinton are testing their appeal in New Hampshire and Iowa.
As formidable as Mrs. Clinton looks even before declaring herself a candidate, liberals are casting about for a committed populist to run against her in 2016. They see the former secretary of state and senator as too closely aligned with large corporations and question whether she can be counted on to narrow the income gap in America.
They hope to either recruit a candidate able to capture the nomination outright or at least give Mrs. Clinton enough of a scare that she embraces progressive policy goals. Their aim is to make the primary process a debate over the Democratic Party’s direction, rather than an uncontested march by Mrs. Clinton to the nomination.
Guy Saperstein, a Democratic donor and part-owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team, met privately at his home near San Francisco last week with Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who has long championed liberal causes. Mr. Sanders says he is considering a presidential bid and wants to gauge whether he can raise enough money.
In their conversation, Mr. Saperstein said, he told Mr. Sanders that he couldn’t support him until he is assured Ms. Warren, of Massachusetts, won’t run. But he said he isn’t inclined to give money to Mrs. Clinton in any scenario, saying he is “extremely concerned” about what he called her “closeness to Wall Street.”
Mrs. Clinton and her husband have raised about $1 billion from U.S. companies and industry donors in support of various policy and political goals over the past two decades, a Wall Street Journal analysis has shown. As president, Bill Clinton signed into law a measure that deregulated parts of Wall Street, which critics say contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.
Earlier this past week, Mr. Sanders visited Keene State College in New Hampshire, the first presidential primary state, where he warned students that wealthy conservative interests are bottling up policies that would boost job growth and help struggling families.
Asked about Mrs. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street firms, Mr. Sanders, who normally has stopped short of criticizing her, said: “That’s an issue that Hillary Clinton is going to have to deal with. That is a very fair observation, and I think the American people perceive that.”
After listening to Mr. Sanders’s hourlong speech, Keene resident John-Michael Dumais said: “He could help steer the conversation in a more populist direction. People need that voice.”
Mrs. Clinton’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In recent appearances for Democratic candidates in midterm races, Mrs. Clinton has sought to shore up her populist credentials. At a campaign rally in Minnesota this past week, she made some of her most explicit comments to date about the need to prevent the sort of financial practices that led to the economic collapse in 2008.
“We’ve made progress, but there is a lot of unfinished business so we don’t end up once again with big banks taking big risks and leaving taxpayers holding the bag,” she said.
On Friday, Mrs. Clinton called Ms. Warren “a passionate champion for working people and middle-class families.” At a rally for the Democratic nominee for governor in Massachusetts, Mrs. Clinton also said: “I love watching Elizabeth, you know, give it to those who deserve to get it.”
As some liberals see it, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are more trusted advocates of their interests. Ms. Warren has skewered credit-card companies and mortgage lenders, accusing them of exploiting people who aren’t financially savvy.
Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a longtime Democratic donor, said he would like to see Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren run. “Having either Bernie or Elizabeth run would be a wonderful thing for the country,” Mr. Cohen said. Both, he said, “are standing up for the rights of the majority of the population.”
As for Mrs. Clinton, he said: “I see Hillary as part of the middle-of-the-road mainstream government that is essentially in bed with these corporations.”
A three-month-old super PAC called “Ready for Warren” is planning to ramp up its efforts after the midterm elections, hiring staff in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina to help ignite a Warren-for-president movement, people with the group say.
One problem: Ms. Warren isn’t going along. Her Senate term ends in 2019, and she has pledged to serve throughout. Yet, there is a long history of politicians promising not to run and then changing their minds.
One Ready for Warren official said she attended the steak-fry fundraiser in Iowa last month in which Mrs. Clinton was the marquee speaker. “A lot of people were coming up to us and asking for signs and stickers and saying how excited they were about Warren and how they hoped she would run,” said Erica Sagrans, the group’s campaign manager.