A billionaire activist and philanthropist, Tom Steyer brings several assets with him to the 2020 presidential race: Longtime Democratic connections, at least some support from his efforts to impeach President Donald Trump and a willingness to spend $100 million of his own money on the race, giving him time to get his footing.
But that doesn’t necessarily translate to a successful campaign.
Steyer is entering the Democratic presidential primary relatively late and facing nearly two dozen competitors in a historically crowded field. He hasn’t been included in any polls since January and likely won’t make the second round of debates. His top issues — climate change and impeachment — haven’t moved the needle for other candidates.
“That’s kind of the big lingering question is, what does he have that the other candidates don’t besides the big bankroll that he walks in the door with?” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy For America. He argued that to win the nomination this cycle, a candidate will have to be able to tap into the grassroots to earn support.
“That’s going to be the real challenge, and certainly the resources makes it possible to build that team, but it doesn’t make it a fait accompli. And so it’s one of the reasons Mr. Steyer is going to have to work just as hard as any other candidate in this race if he’s going to be successful, and we’ll have to see how that works out.”
In fact, Steyers’ strengths may also hurt him in the Democratic primary. He is a billionaire in a primary with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have criticized the political decisions of the super-rich. And he’s self-funding in a field that has stressed the importance of small-dollar donations.
“The decision to get in this late means a candidate must look at the entire diverse field and think, ‘I alone can win this.’ It’s an entirely different decision from announcing in January when almost nobody was in the race,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee (which is backing Warren), in a statement to TIME. “Especially for a rich white male, this decision should be gut-checked in a major way.”
Still, $100 million can go a long way in a presidential race. Comparatively, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign says he raised $24.8 million in just the second quarter, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign says he brought in $21.5 million.
Steyer’s money means that rather than focusing on bringing in donations to survive, he’ll largely be free to pursue his own agenda.
On it are impeachment and climate change, which will likely allow him to corner other Democrats on those issues. A large chunk of the presidential field has come out in support of beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump, but none have made it a centerpiece issue the way Steyer has. In January, he ruled out a presidential run saying that impeachment would be his focus instead.
Though Steyer was notably silent on that issue in his announcement video, he did mention his other big focus, climate change. It’s a topic that has seen little by way of substantive debate in the 2020 primary. Although Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has claimed climate change as the centerpiece of his campaign and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has pushed it as a central issue, neither has broken into the top tier of candidates so far.
Both are also causes Steyer has experience backing through is work with NextGen America and Need to Impeach, organizations whose leadership he left as he runs for president. In a press release, Need to Impeach said Steyer pledged more than $50 million through 2020 “to ensuring both organizations fulfill their missions.”
“Through the important work of @NextGenAmerica and @Need2Impeach, which I will continue to support, I’ve focused on registering & turning out the #youthvote, and pressuring Congress to hold this president accountable by beginning impeachment proceedings. But it’s not enough,” Steyer said on Twitter.
Perhaps Steyer’s biggest obstacle will be gaining enough traction in the polls and grassroots to stay relevant. To meet the bar for the Democratic National Committee’s fall debates, candidates must receive 2 percent or more in at least four qualifying polls and a grassroots fundraising threshold of 130,000 unique donors with at least 400 donors pers state from at least 20 states.
Also left in question is how his dollars focused on a presidential campaign could be used instead. It’s an idea that has rankled some Democrats.
“For the $100 million that Tom Steyer is planning to spend on this race, you could change the balance of every competitive state legislative chamber in America. Think about that for a second. Instead, he’s spending it on a vanity project,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist, in an email to TIME. “How can someone complain about how our democracy is being sold to the highest bidder, and then in the next breath pledge to spend $100 million to buy the highest office in the land?”
“I don’t know how anyone can look at this primary field and think – you know what we need? Another white man.”
A day before Steyer jumped in, Rep. Eric Swalwell, a fellow Californian, became the first serious candidate to drop from the race, saying that he did not see a viable path forward. Asked if he had any advice for Steyer, Swalwell said:
“It’s rough out there.”
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