How will Tom Steyer’s 2020 bid shake up the Democratic field?

  • Billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer has announced his candidacy for President of the United States, joining a crowded Democratic field.
  • Loosely similar to Trump in 2016, Steyer is touting his wealth and outsider status as an asset, promising to spend $100 million of his own fortune on his campaign.
  • Steyer’s first major hurdle will be achieving at least 2 percent of Democratic support in polls and amassing 130,000 individual donors to qualify for the next DNC debate.

Another outsider joins the Democratic field

Just when it looked like the field of Democrats running for president in 2020 was starting to thin, in July the billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer announced his candidacy for the highest office in the land.

A former hedge fund manager turned philanthroper, Steyer enters the race as an outsider. Even though he has never held elected office, however, he has made a name for himself among left-wing activists and politicians. Steyer gave more than $100 million to liberal candidates in the 2016 election — more than any other donor (even the vaunted Koch brothers). Over the past decade since getting aggressively involved in politics, he has focused his wealth (in his telling) on mobilizing citizens against corporate interests, helping progressives face off with oil companies in California, shut down corporate tax loopholes, and challenge tobacco companies.

In 2020 Steyer has promised to spend $100 million of his own money on his campaign, and so far he appears to be making good on that claim. As of the end of July Steyer had already spent nearly a million dollars on Facebook and Google ads — more than anyone else in the Democratic field that month. He had also dropped $4.3 million on TV advertisements, with most of that sum targeting audiences in four key early caucus and primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

In addition to his wealth, Steyer enters the race with a key structural advantage over many of the other candidates: an email list more than 8 million strong developed by Need to Impeach, his initiative to impeach President Trump launched in 2017.

This list “may be more of an asset to him than being a self-funder,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, founder of the firm New Blue Interactive. 

“Building a list takes time. Coming into the presidential debate, it’s advantageous for him to come in with a list,” Rosenkranz told Politico.

Steyer’s progressive policy platform is similar to those of rival candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. It is built around his “5 rights” campaign, which includes the rights to an equal vote, clean air and water, education, living wage, and health care.

Making his case

Loosely similar to what Donald Trump did in 2016 to stand out in a crowded GOP field, Steyer is touting his wealth and outsider status as an asset, promising to fight back against corporate lobbyists that he argues have “rigged the system” against ordinary Americans.

“Nobody owns me,” Steyer told NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald shortly after announcing his candidacy. “If you look at the top four people running for president as Democrats, they share 73 years either in the Congress or the Senate. It’s a question of insiders versus an outsider.”

Unlike Trump, however, Steyer has a track record of investing heavily, and personally, in political campaigns that have produced results at the ballot box. 

“The question is,” Steyer told WBUR, “do you believe that somebody who’s a Washington insider is going to reform Washington, or do you believe somebody who’s been doing it successfully for 10 years as an outsider is going to bring that power to reform?”

While he may be beloved in Democratic activists circles, Steyer is likely to face resistance among establishment Democratic lawmakers and party officials who would rather see his vast financial resources directed to other candidates and initiatives rather than yet another presidential campaign. His early calls for impeaching President Trump also have earned the ire of key players in the House Democratic Caucus, who have been reticent to take such as step.

“Whether it was pushing for Donald Trump’s impeachment, demanding a more robust plan to address climate change, or insisting that Democrats protect Dreamers, I’ve been willing to stand on principle even when it is at odds with my party,” Steyer said in a statement to Politico. He vowed to help whoever wins the nomination but added a telling observation: “I understand that our message makes some insiders uncomfortable.”

Finding a path to the nomination

Steyer’s first major hurdle will be achieving at least 2 percent of Democratic support in polls and amassing 130,000 individual donors to qualify for the next Democratic National Committee (DNC) debate this fall.

The requirement, which was specifically made by the DNC to incentivize candidates to build extensive grassroots support, has left the wealthy philanthropist in the unseemly situation of appealing to supporters for just a one-dollar donation to earn a spot on the stage.

With a saturated field of candidates who have already had months to gin up grassroots support and name recognition, Steyer’s candidacy is a long-shot at best, but his checkbook coupled with his experience supporting activist causes — including, significantly, calling for the impeachment of Trump all the way back in 2017 — make him a force to be reckoned with.

“Steyer may be right in gambling that the Democratic race of 2020 looks a lot like the Republican race of 2016,” wrote the Washington Examiner editorial team. “Perhaps the Democratic Party of 2019 is ripe for a hostile takeover. In a crowded but leaderless Democratic field…a candidate who is ready to drop in $100 million of his own money could really shake things up in New Hampshire and California.”

A report from Politico last July made a similar observation: 

“He’s a formidable figure in the Democratic Party, able to bury what he sees as weak-kneed Democrats with pro-impeachment ads and still have enough money left over to fund his own presidential run,” wrote reporters Burgess Everett and Heather Caygle

Indeed, if Steyer can use his wealth to elevate and latch onto a popular issue like climate change, opposition to corporate interests, or impeaching Trump, while making a favorable first-impression on the Democratic electorate, he just might be able to avoid going the way of Ross Perot and Steve Forbes.

In any case, expect to see Steyer push the party even further left as he shrugs off the influence of establishment Democrats and joins first-tier candidates like Sanders and Warren in calling for a vast expansion of social, environmental, and economic government programs. 

Photo Credit: “Fortune Brainstorm Green 2013” by Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm Green is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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