Tom Steyer's $12 Million Failure to Launch

Tom Steyer's $12 Million Failure to Launch
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Tom Steyer's $12 Million Failure to Launch
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Even before liberal billionaire Tom Steyer was shut out of the next Democratic debate, there were tell-tale signs his rocket-fueled six-week presidential bid was failing to launch.

At last weekend’s Democratic National Committee summer confab in San Francisco, Steyer’s home turf, his campaign had a fancy booth complete with a snazzy “Tom2020” photo backdrop, but only a handful of supporters were happily snapping pics and there were no sign-waving foot soldiers to compete with Kamala Harris’ k-hive entourage.

Still, just before his remarks to the gathering, there was a slight buzz in the ballroom from Democrats eager to hear from the familiar activist in person.

To put it bluntly, Steyer underwhelmed. The wooden speech fell especially flat when he lectured his DNC hosts to stop accepting corporate cash.

“We can’t be chasing corporate money. … We should only be chasing people’s votes,” he said. “As president, I would insist that the DNC not take one single penny from any corporation.”

Overall, the party faithful assembled there offered tepid applause even after Steyer reminded them that his NextGen group organized and paid for the “largest youth mobilization in American history” in 2018, helping to flip 33 GOP House seats to the Democratic column.

Strangely, with the notable exception of slamming Donald Trump as the “biggest swamp rat of them all,” Steyer didn’t focus much on the president despite the months he spent demanding Democrats in Congress move to impeach him.

Steyer’s speech left some DNC delegates scratching their heads, though no one wanted to go public berating a billionaire who has invested so many dollars in liberal causes. Steyer was the single largest individual donor to Democratic-aligned groups in 2016 and his voter registration drives in California and Arizona helped fuel the 2018 blue wave.

The spending largesse aside, many Democrats privately say Steyer, an Exeter/Yale/Stanford graduate and a former Goldman Sachs associate who made his fortune running a $26 billion hedge fund, is simply the wrong person to pitch the party’s anti-corporate message to voters.

The New York Times labeled Steyer “something of a patrician populist” in a piece earlier this week -- before the bad news hit that he had failed to make the debate cut even after spending a reported $12 million on digital and television ads in the six weeks since joining the 2020 race. While Steyer met the threshold for attracting 130,000 donors across the country, he fell just one poll short of demonstrating 2% support nationwide.  

He has vowed to fight on to reach the next debate stage in October and has no choice but to continue trying to boost his campaign through millions of dollars in paid ads.

“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be on the debate stage in Houston this month, I’m excited by all the support you’ve shown us,” he told supporters in a tweet Wednesday night. “We started this campaign to get corporate influence out of politics, and I won’t stop fighting until the government belongs to the people again.”

Steyer likes to cast himself as the “outsider” in the race while labeling  former Vice President Joe Biden and the crowded field of Democratic senators as the “establishment” candidates. But he brushes aside any comparisons to Trump, the Republican billionaire who rode an anti-Washington wave to power.

Most critics on the left have been mild so far, applauding Steyer as a generous liberal grassroots activist who’s devoted to bolstering the climate change cause but noting that that’s far different from organically developing a populist following. Just after entering the race, Steyer got hit by a Los Angeles Times piece highlighting his hedge-fund investments in coal mining and private prisons.

Harsher detractors point to his history of parking funds in overseas tax havens to help wealthy clients legally avoid paying taxes – similar to tactics used by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during his career at Bain Capital, which Democrats repeatedly attacked during the 2012 campaign.

DNC delegates last weekend privately stated the obvious in interviews with RealClearPolitics: How can Steyer say he plans to spend $100 million of his own corporate-driven money on winning the White House while pressing the DNC to completely abstain?

Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have zeroed in on the disconnect.

“What we don’t need is more billionaires running for president,” the Sanders campaign said after Steyer jumped into the race in July.

Warren had a similar salvo: “The Democratic primary shouldn’t be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves.”

Addressing the same crowd just after Steyer did last week, Warren recounted her struggle to pay her way through college, and waitressing to attain her first dream job of becoming a special needs teacher before veering into a legal career and consumer activism.

Warren’s personal story resonated with the DNC crowd, and she didn’t pull any punches in her message about fighting monied special interests despite following Steyer in the speaker lineup.

“When you see in America a government that works great for those with money, those with connections, and not great for everybody else, that’s corruption, plain and simple. We need to call it out and we need to fight it. I’ve got a plan for that.”

Steyer says he does too and can use his business experience to take the fight to Trump on trade and the economy. But so far, he has a long way to go to convince fellow Democrats he has the right political juice and street cred to make his own campaign take flight.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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