The Memo: Democrats irked as billionaire Steyer joins 2020 race

The Memo: Democrats irked as billionaire Steyer joins 2020 race
© Greg Nash

Billionaire financier Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerAnalysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's new controversy Sanders, Yang to miss CNN's town hall on LGBTQ issues MORE announced he would join the 2020 presidential race on Tuesday — and the dominant reaction from Democrats was annoyance.

Critics on the left accuse Steyer, a liberal activist from California, of mounting a vanity project that they say has no real chance of success.

They worry he could damage the chances of more prominent candidates whose views align with his own, notably Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Krystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted MORE (D-Mass).

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The threat from Steyer is simple: His wealth means he can run a well-funded campaign for almost as long as he likes. A Steyer spokesman told The New York Times that he was willing to spend "at least $100 million" on his presidential bid.

“Anybody with $100 million to spend will have an impact,” said Jonathan Tasini, a well-known progressive writer and activist in New York. “I just think it is a massive case of ego run amok. There is absolutely nothing that Steyer is saying that other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are not saying.”

“He typifies the kind of candidate that Democrats hate the most, which is somebody who thinks they can buy the primary or buy support,” said a party strategist who is unaligned with any current presidential candidate and requested anonymity to speak candidly blasted the Democratic mega-donor.

Still, the criticisms of Steyer bump up against the fact that he has espoused causes that are popular with the liberal grass roots.

After making his fortune, he first came to political prominence as a vigorous advocate for action on climate change. 

More recently, he has been best known for spearheading a drive to impeach President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE — an effort that has collected more than 8 million supporters and has encompassed a major TV ad campaign, with most them putting Steyer front and center.

Some progressives acknowledge Steyer's commitment to their causes even as they are skeptical of his 2020 chances.

Charles Chamberlain, chairman of progressive group Democracy for America, emphasized Steyer’s record on climate change as one potential upside to his candidacy.

On that topic, he said, “What is exciting about Tom getting into the race is, with the kind of money he has, he may be able to drive forward solutions in a way that could be positive for America.”

Even so, Chamberlain noted that overall, “It’s a little difficult to see what Tom Steyer has to offer, other than bringing a billionaire’s finances into it.”

In an emailed statement, Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, said of Steyer’s choice to enter the race this late: “Especially for a rich white male, this decision should be gut checked in a major way.”

But Green also noted that “Steyer will likely add attention to two issues he and Warren have led on: impeachment and addressing the climate crisis. Those issues deserve attention.”

Sanders and Warren seem less than thrilled to have Steyer in the race. 

He would appear to pose a much bigger threat to them than to more centrist candidates such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE, who continues to top national polls despite losing some of his lead following the first debates last month.

Sanders and Warren already face a challenge in trying to get progressive voters to coalesce behind one or the other.

That will be an even steeper climb now that a candidate with a presumptive $100 million in his campaign coffers has joined the race.

In the second quarter of this year, Warren and Sanders raised $19.1 million and $18 million respectively.

On Tuesday, Warren tweeted, “The Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves” — a clear shot at Steyer.

Sanders, in an MSNBC interview, said he was personally fond of Steyer but was “a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power.”

Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and admaker in Steyer’s home state of California, told The Hill that Sanders and Warren have cause to be concerned: “The candidates who are running to the more progressive, left side — they just got another candidate doing that as well, and one with unlimited resources. That may complicate things for those candidates.”

Carrick noted that Steyer’s pro-impeachment ads have boosted his name recognition among the public and that his access to the email addresses of the people who signed up to that effort could help him enormously.

Elsewhere in the progressive world, however, there is carping that Steyer — if genuinely concerned about the issues rather than self-promotion — could have put his wealth to use in more effective ways.

Jamelle Bouie, a liberal columnist with The New York Times, tweeted, “if i were a liberal billionaire with a $100 millions to burn i'd spend it on a nationwide voter registration drive instead of a vanity presidential campaign.”

Tasini, the progressive activist in New York, argued Steyer could have made more of a substantive difference if he had been prepared to use his money to buttress Democratic hopes of taking back control of the Senate next November.

Tasini poured cold water on the suggestion that Steyer would have a real impact in terms of taking votes away from the top progressive candidates. 

“That’s unlikely because I think his status as a white man billionaire does not chip in to the base of either Warren or Sanders,” Tasini said. “Would he win five of their votes? Maybe. But not 5 percent of them.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.