California billionaire Tom Steyer is raising his political profile ahead of what many observers expect to be an upcoming run for the Senate or the White House.
In an interview with The Hill, the Democratic mega-donor confirmed that he’s considering a run for office, a move that could set the stage for high-profile showdowns in either California’s 2018 Senate race or the 2020 presidential race.
“I haven’t ruled out other things, because if it seems like that’s how I can have the most positive impact, I’ll do it,” Steyer told The Hill. “I really will.”
Steyer recently put at least $10 million into his new impeachment campaign against President Trump. Steyer’s effort has garnered more than 1 million signatures since launching in October.
“I’m just trying to figure out what way I can do it that is most effective,” Steyer said, referring to his role in politics. “Right now, honestly, it’s the campaign for impeachment, because it struck a real nerve and because it seems to be galvanizing people to think critically about what’s going on right now.”
Steyer’s nascent campaign has already brought him a larger profile, thanks to his starring role in the impeachment ads and an angry tweet from the president.
On Friday, Steyer was sitting on an airplane waiting for an early-morning flight to Los Angeles when a friend texted to say that Trump had tweeted about him.
“Wacky & totally unhinged Tom Steyer, who has been fighting me and my Make America Great Again agenda from beginning, never wins elections!” Trump wrote.
Steyer suspects that the campaign caught Trump’s eye after one of its ads ran on Fox News. Steyer said he welcomed the tweet.
“My reaction was basically ‘thank you,’ ” Steyer said. “Do I think that a president who we’re actively saying should be removed from office and impeached — do I take what he says about me seriously? Heck no. … It probably was good for this campaign.”
Observers in both parties suspect that Steyer has been positioning himself to run in California next year, either by challenging Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinRepublicans caught in California's recall trap F-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE in the Democratic primary or running in an open gubernatorial race.
Steyer could see a political campaign as a chance to make a larger impact on politics, said RL Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote and a California Democrat.
“I am on the outside and I know that it is hard to move a very large system,” Miller said. “I see the allure of moving it from the inside, of being one in 100 people in the room where they actually get to vote, rather than being one of the thousands of lobbyists.”
Jason Roe, a San Diego-based Republican consultant, expects Steyer to jump into one of the races soon, saying the wealthy green activist could establish himself as an especially progressive voice in a contest between Feinstein and state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin De León, who is already running to her left on several issues.
Republicans have watched Steyer hit the speaking circuit in a way other donors haven’t, Roe said, adding that Steyer has visited local Democratic Party dinners.
“I think when he first got on the scene, he seemed to be more of a financier ... kind of a dilettante playing in politics by writing big checks,” Roe said. “But as he took on a more active profile, I think that’s when we started looking at him as a likely candidate.”
Steyer has been active in California and national politics through his group NextGen America, which has long organized around policies like climate change and the environment. He’s spent an estimated $165 million on Democratic organizations and candidates over the past few election cycles.
Steyer’s group was known as NextGen Climate until July, when Steyer changed the name to reflect its expanded mission covering other issues.
Steyer’s group focuses aggressively on organizing and voter registration. During the 2016 election cycle, the group registered nearly 810,000 Californians and 400,000 people elsewhere around the country to vote. Steyer said NextGen volunteers are on 370 college campuses and knocked on a total of 12.5 million doors before the elections.
NextGen was also a key supporter of a cap-and-trade emissions law adopted in California this year. Steyer has taken up other causes, including increasing California’s tobacco tax.
Steyer has a number of campaign-ready attacks on Trump and the GOP.
Republicans, he said, “attack the rights of Americans and do stupid things about climate and take money away from working families.” He slammed Trump’s budget proposal as one that would cut “every single line item that has to do with preparing Americans to be successful in the 21st century,” and he said the GOP’s economic platform is “dumb as a stick, and it makes absolutely no sense.”
California Democratic consultant Dan Newman says Steyer’s advocacy has tied him to several causes that could appeal to voters.
“He’s spent several gazillion dollars over the last few years to attempt to attach himself to several popular issues: environment, tobacco taxes, stopping Trump,” Newman said.
“The big question for him is whether or not that would translate into voters checking a box by his name if he’s on the ballot.”
Steyer insists that there’s no personal “political calculation” motivating his impeachment campaign, saying candidates in 2018 and beyond will have to decide what their platform is going to be.
“People who are running for office are going to have to figure out what they stand for,” he said, “And they’re going to have to talk about what the future is supposed to be like.”
Julia Manchester contributed.