Tom Steyer, the billionaire California activist, launched a long-shot presidential campaign Tuesday morning, joining a crowded Democratic field with a promise to focus on climate action and political reform — and to write a $100-million check to his own campaign.
Steyer, who just months ago insisted he would not run for president, reversed that decision in a video announcement to supporters. He lamented how “corporate money has corrupted our democracy and stripped Americans of our ability to determine our own future,” though Steyer has probably funneled more cash into the political system than all of his nearly two dozen rivals combined.
Steyer said in an interview that he is committed to spending at least $100 million on his presidential bid, which is more than most candidates can raise in an entire race.
The cash infusion -- if Steyer actually follows through — is certain to stir intra-party grumbling from Democrats who would prefer Steyer, one of the party’s top donors in recent years, devote his cash to helping the party win seats in Congress or supporting a more viable nominee.
“We are not backing off on any of that stuff,” Steyer said, vowing he will continue to invest heavily in registering and turning out young voters, especially at colleges and universities, where his organizations have been active. “We are going to do all of those things. I am going to continue to support candidates. I am going to continue to be on those campuses.”
The pledge to spend big on his run could amplify the challenge Steyer will face trying to run as a reformer, although it could help with another major challenge — convincing voters that his entering the race amounts to more than a rich man’s ego trip.
The billionaire sought to confront those awkward optics in his announcement video, highlighting his philanthropic work and the pledge he and other billionaires have made to give away at least half of their fortunes during their lifetimes.
Borrowing a theme from other progressives who have disavowed big money in politics, Steyer said in the interview that while many in the race are aiming to advance ambitious policy ideas, those all assume “we have broken the corporate stranglehold on government. We have not. How are we going to be in a position where any of that can happen?...That is the focus of what we are doing.”
Yet Steyer stands in stark contrast to campaign finance reformers in the race, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who have vowed not to take the kind of checks Steyer will be writing for himself.
Both senators welcomed him to the race by repeating that they believe the campaign is no place for billionaires.
“I like Tom personally, but I do have to say as somebody who in this campaign has received 2 million contributions, averaging $19 a person, I’m a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power,” Sanders said on MSNBC.
Warren tweeted: “The Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves.”
Steyer argues voters will be less focused on where his money is coming from than on his vision, track record of mobilizing for change and position as an outsider.
“Why am I different?” Steyer said. “I am not an insider. Look at the top four Democratic candidates. They have between them 70 years in Congress. That is the definition of insider. If we are going to change, it will be a different way. It must be from the grass roots.”
Steyer’s belief that Democratic primary voters are eager for an outsider is not reflected in polls, in which Democratic voters say they would prefer a candidate with political experience.
In a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll last month, for example, 71% of voters nationwide who said they would take part in a Democratic primary said they would prefer a “DC insider, with national-level political experience” over an outsider with no political experience.
Steyer said he had initially opted not to run so he could focus on his campaign to impeach President Trump, which he said has been a success with millions enlisting in the effort. Democrats in Washington, concerned about political fallout, have resisted holding impeachment hearings, a stance that has angered Steyer and factored into his launch of a White House bid.
“Insiders in Washington mocked the effort,” Steyer said. But “we have won the argument” that corruption in the White House rises to the level where impeachment proceedings are warranted, he said. “Everyone knows that. But we still can’t get the televised hearings to let Americans come together and decide what to do.”
Steyer nonetheless has some significant advantages in addition to his checkbook.
He is jumping into the race at a time the field remains unsettled. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has led consistently in polls, has seen that lead erode significantly following last month’s lackluster debate performance, and some candidates who struggled initially have been able to muscle their way into the top tier.
Steyer launches his campaign with an infrastructure that would make many candidates who have been in the race for months envious. The advocacy groups he has funded, NextGen America and Need to Impeach, have been building their email lists and recruiting activists in battleground states for months. The Need to Impeach email list is 8 million members strong.
But the groups have also weathered persistent instability at the top. Political consultants and organizers churn through Steyer’s workforce at a rate that has attracted attention even in an industry known for its tumult.
Steyer has resigned from his leadership roles at those groups as he seeks the nomination. But as he left, he committed more than $50 million to them through 2020.
The billionaire vowed to focus his campaign nationwide, not just on the early primary states. His first campaign stop will be in one of those early states, South Carolina, this weekend.
While he does bring some strengths to the race, Steyer faces challenging prospects, starting with his party’s criteria to join debates.
Steyer said in the interview that he was getting into the race too late to qualify for the one at the end of July. To make that debate, he would need to get contributions from 65,000 donors or reach at least 1% in three polls recognized by the Democratic National Committee by July 16. He has generally not been included in polls done so far this year, but in two that were done in December, he got 0%.
Getting on stage for the September and October debates, which he said he hopes to do, will also be tough. To qualify for those, candidates will need donations from at least 130,000 contributors and support of at least 2% in four polls. Wealthy candidates who pledge to spend a lot of their own money often have trouble convincing potential donors to contribute.
Kim Nalder, a political science professor at Cal State Sacramento, questioned the viability of any billionaire at a time when Democrats are aching to oust the one now serving as president.
She also suggested that Steyer’s goal in jumping into the race so late might be less to win the presidency than to publicize his pet causes, such as the impeachment of Trump or efforts to fight global warming.
“I can’t imagine that this would be a successful campaign in the sense of getting elected, but that’s not always the reason that people run for president,” Nalder said. “I think the timing gives us some indication of how serious his intentions are in terms of electability.”