Tom Steyer’s eleventh-hour presidential bid is confounding Democrats. And some party officials are ready for him to butt out.
The billionaire environmental activist is antagonizing Democratic leaders, whacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi for going on August recess and criticizing House Democrats for not immediately impeaching the president.
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And as Steyer vows to spend as much as $100 million of his own money in the primary to boost his long-shot candidacy, Democrats are growing frustrated that he’ll only further clog the crowded campaign — particularly if he can buy his way onto the debate stage this fall.
“It’s very difficult for me to see the path for Tom Steyer to be a credible candidate,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who has endorsed Pete Buttigieg. “So yes, I would rather that he spend his money taking back the Virginia House, the Virginia Senate and supporting people who can win.”
“I wish he wouldn’t do it. Especially at this late date,” added Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden. “Things are set except for those who are going to drop out.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio observed that Steyer is basically “another white guy in the race,” albeit a wealthy one who is “a major progressive player.” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was mostly perplexed by the wealthy Californian’s entry when asked about it: “I kind of wonder why?”
Steyer’s entry into the 2020 race — which he had previously passed on — further complicates an already complex relationship with the Democratic Party.
Some lawmakers know him personally and have been beneficiaries of his largesse. Democrats have also praised his efforts to combat climate change. Others are less pleased to see another self-funding ex-businessman trying his hand at politics when the stakes are so high.
And many lawmakers are familiar only with his ads demanding impeachment — or his visits to their congressional districts to pressure them with town halls pushing Donald Trump’s ouster.
Given how wrenching the impeachment issue has been for Democrats, there’s not a lot of love for Steyer in the House Democratic Caucus.
“Do I think he’s wasting his money on [impeachment] ads against me? Yes,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who has not endorsed a presidential candidate and declined to comment on his presidential run.
Steyer has already used his multimillion-dollar impeachment campaign to target prominent House Democrats, including Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York and Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland. And he’s floated the idea of turning his financial firepower on Democratic leadership, including Pelosi.
Steyer issued a blunt statement directed at the speaker last week after Democrats voted to kill an effort to immediately launch impeachment proceedings against Trump. Then he dinged Congress on Monday for “going on vacation for six weeks,” calling on Pelosi to cancel the House’s August recess.
“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 for this story, vowing to help whoever wins the nomination but acknowledging: “I understand that our message makes some insiders uncomfortable.”
In the past, Pelosi has tried to privately contact Steyer — one of her constituents — to urge him to knock off the public impeachment campaign. But Steyer has refused, instead funneling millions more dollars into an effort that Pelosi and other House Democrats have derided as a “distraction.”
A spokesman for Pelosi declined to comment for this story. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also declined to talk about Steyer.
But Steyer can’t simply be written off.
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.
Steyer’s focus on climate over the years could also be an asset, some Democrats argued, especially since he may have more resources than other candidates to climb in the polls.
“As a climate hawk, I think it’s good for climate. I don’t think Jay Inslee has got much traction,” argued Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), referring to the Washington state governor.
Whitehouse has criticized the slew of candidates running for the presidency that could be pursuing winnable Senate seats in red states, and he notes that Steyer isn’t among them.
“Between his sincerity and his not being a drag on Senate races and his likely enhancement of the climate issue? I’m pretty glad he’s there,” he said.
Less glad are Democratic presidential candidates. For one, they argue a billionaire in the race paints the party in a bad light.
In an interview, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading presidential candidate, took a shot at Steyer when asked about his candidacy.
“All campaigns should be grassroots funded in a primary. This is our chance to build our coalition that not only is going to help us win in 2020 but also help us make change come 2021,” Warren said. “Everyone should be doing grassroots funding. Everyone.”
And it’s easy to see how Steyer could be a problem for lower-tier presidential hopefuls.
Steyer can spend inordinate sums just to get donors to pitch in $1 to his campaign, which could lift him to the debate stage despite his late entry. A number of his competitors will struggle to accrue the 130,000 donors and 2 percent polling bump needed to make the fall debates.
“People’s votes can’t be bought,” argued Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), whose presidential campaign is running on a small-donor insurgent strategy to stay on the stage.
Though Steyer may pose a short-term threat to some Democratic candidates, his overall effect on the race may be muted, according to interviews with more than a dozen prominent Democrats.
He’s likely to press his competition on impeachment and climate change, potentially helping elevate issues that are hot on the left. But his own candidacy probably has little chance of catching fire, elected officials in Washington said.
“There is always going to be a lane in a Democratic primary to run on impeachment. So I don’t know whether he can capture that lane,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Had he gotten in the race six months ago, when he was the only person calling for impeachment, maybe he would have [had] a different impact than today.”
“It really makes it hard because there’s so many candidates. Steyer gets in, it’s just another candidate to get in of many. He just happens to have money,” added Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “But it’s going to be very difficult for these folks that are on the bottom tier.”
Perhaps the biggest issue Democrats take with Steyer is that he’s fueling a negative narrative in the primary: that their field is cartoonishly large and only growing.
On July 8, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) dropped out of the race and for the first time it looked like the field of two dozen was finally shrinking.
Yet exactly one day after Swalwell left, Steyer got in. In an interview, Swalwell predicted Steyer’s spending would get him in at least one debate and registering in the polls.
But he also had a pointed warning to the newcomer.
“It’s rough out there,” he said.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.