3 reasons billionaire activist Tom Steyer is running for president

3 reasons billionaire activist Tom Steyer is running for president
© Greg Nash

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the pool of Democratic presidential candidates got deeper with the addition of progressive activist Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerHarris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Teamsters to host presidential forum with six 2020 Democrats Booker notes 'anger' over more billionaires than black candidates in 2020 race MORE on Tuesday.

After announcing earlier in the that he wouldn’t run for president, the California billionaire proved that he meant business by launching with a $1.4 million media buy that will air nationally and in four states with early 2020 delegate contests.

The big question is why he changed his mind and decided to run after a couple of dozen candidates have been campaigning for months. There are three likely possibilities.


He may be frustrated that his effort to impeach the president has stalled because of the opposition of House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans On The Money: Falling impeachment support raises pressure for Dems on trade | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Biden eyes minimum tax for corporations | Fed's top regulator under pressure over Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Virginia moves to suspend Medicaid work rules | Powerful House panel sets 'Medicare for All' hearing | Hospitals sue over Trump price rule | FDA official grilled on vaping policy MORE. Steyer chose to focus his energy and money in a different direction.

It could be a political calculation. Earlier in the year, everybody assumed that the nomination of either Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (I-Vt.) or former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans MORE was inevitable. But the decline of the Sanders and Biden candidacies have created a vacuum in the contest. Politics like nature abhors a vacuum, so Steyer moved quickly and decisively to fill it. 

Before he began his crusade to impeach President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE, Steyer had focused his efforts on fighting climate change. He might have thought that environmental issues weren’t getting enough exposure in the race from the current crop of candidates. Steyer had encouraged Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate O'Rourke ends presidential bid MORE to enter the race as the champion of the environment but Inslee’s candidacy never took off.

There’s rarely a simple explanation for anything in politics, so my guess is that his motivation is based on a combination of these three factors.

The other question about Steyer is whether his late launch will allow him to blast off. He has already missed one debate and will probably miss the second round that starts on July 30 — unless he can raise money from 65,000 small donors very quickly, as required by the DNC to appear on stage.


It is late in the game but Steyer has advantages.

His obvious advantage is money. He pledged to spend $100 million dollars on a presidential race. This is bigger than the buys of any of the Democratic candidates. He is worth about $1.6 billion dollars so he could spend more than that if he wants.

Both Sanders and another Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE of Massachusetts have criticized his entry into the race. They attacked Steyer right out of the gate, saying the last thing American politics needs is another billionaire trying to buy high office. Steyer threatens the Sanders and Warren candidacies since they all have a progressive political base.

But he has more than money going for him. He has created two organizations — Need to Impeach and NextGen — that could provide a base of thousands of activists for a strong grassroots campaign.

In an ad released on YouTube Tuesday, Steyer called for “government by and for the people, not just the powerful and well connected.” Democratic primary voters may have a hard time accepting this pitch from a powerful and well-connected billionaire. 

The new candidate also states his priorities, “I left my business to combat climate change, fix our democracy and hold President Trump accountable.” All three priorities are important to Democratic primary voters. 

We’ll find out soon if Steyer jumped into the race to win or to ensure that impeachment and climate change take a bigger role in the Democratic debate. 

Most observers were surprised when he got into the race Tuesday but the Democratic presidential campaign is still fluid. A fresh face with no elected political experience identified with the fight against Trump and climate change may just be what the doctor ordered for Democrats who are sick and tired of the status quo.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of a radio podcast “Dateline D.C. With Brad Bannon” that airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him onTwitter @BradBannon.

This is the 19th piece in a series of profiles by Bannon on 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Read his analysis on Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)Mayor Pete ButtigiegSen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourkeformer Govs. Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper, former Vice President Joe BidenSen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former HUD Secretary Julian CastroSen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).