Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund investor turned impeachment activist, announced on Tuesday that he would challenge President Trump in 2020, reversing a previous decision not to enter the race.
In a video announcing his candidacy, Mr. Steyer positioned himself as a populist outsider, railing against corporate interests that he described as holding too much sway over the political system.
“Americans are deeply disappointed and hurt by the way they’re treated by what they think is the power elite in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Steyer said in the video. “And that goes across party lines and it goes across geography.”
Included in the video were images of men who, Mr. Steyer seemed to imply, represented the excesses of corruption and greed, including Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s incarcerated former adviser; Bernard Madoff, the notorious Ponzi schemer; and Jeffrey Epstein, the investor who was indicted this week on charges of sex trafficking.
Mr. Steyer may be a questionable vessel for a populist message, as a billionaire financier in a party increasingly defined by concern for economic inequality, and as a 62-year-old white man courting an audience of liberals in a Democratic Party preoccupied with racial diversity and gender equality.
Yet his candidacy instantly transformed the financial shape of the race; he vowed to spend an enormous sum of his personal fortune on his campaign.
“Tom has committed to spending at least $100 million on this campaign,” said Alberto Lammers, a spokesman for Mr. Steyer.
That figure exceeds the total fund-raising over the last three months by Joseph R. Biden Jr., Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris — combined. A $100 million budget would represent about half the cost of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign; most candidates who run for president spend a fraction of that sum.
Another reinvention for Steyer
Mr. Steyer’s opening message represents the latest incarnation of a figure who has played a highly unpredictable role in Democratic politics. In his announcement video, he made no mention of the issue that has consumed his political activities for the last two years — impeaching Mr. Trump — and instead borrowed from the rhetoric of leading Democratic candidates like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
Among his targets: fossil-fuel companies that he accused of torching the planet for short-term profits, drug companies he blamed for the opioid crisis and “banks screwing people on their mortgages.”
The solution, Mr. Steyer said, was to “take the corporate control out of our politics.”
There is little doubt that message has broad appeal to Democrats, moderates and liberals alike. And Mr. Steyer has tangled with big corporations before, as he notes in his video, which highlights his battles with energy and tobacco companies in California.
But Mr. Steyer is also now on his third signature issue in little more than half a decade — after first championing climate as a campaign topic, and then presidential impeachment — and he will have to compete with more than a handful of other Democrats trumpeting clean-government themes. He also may have to defend his own business record, as the founder of Farallon Capital, an investment firm that had more than $20 billion under its management when he left in 2012.
What’s more, some of his rivals, including Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, have already begun to make the case to voters that a billionaire candidate should be viewed skeptically from the start.
A Democratic version of Trump?
A wealthy outsider. An appetite for controversy. A huge personal fortune. No experience in governing. An on-the-fly decision to run for president.
More than any other candidate in the race, Mr. Steyer may test Democrats’ interest in nominating a Trump-like champion of their own. The comparison is imperfect: Mr. Steyer is a quirky patrician from the Bay Area who enunciates his words carefully, cares passionately about climate change and adores the novel “Lonesome Dove.” Mr. Trump is, well, none of those things.
But Mr. Steyer brings to the race a contempt for traditional politicians and a sprawling confidence in himself that make him at least a faint echo of the current president. By embracing impeachment as a personal cause during the midterm elections, ignoring the entreaties of Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mr. Steyer claimed a role as one of his party’s chief provocateurs.
It is not clear how that attitude might translate into a primary campaign. Other Democrats have stretched and strained the boundaries of conventional party politics, but mainly with their ideas — demanding bigger, more daring policies to address economic inequality or education, or racial justice or the degradation of the environment.
Mr. Steyer, by contrast, has yet to translate his mélange of political attitudes and priorities into a consistent platform. That may have to change quickly if he is to be a serious contender for the nomination.
Sharp and unpredictable elbows
Mr. Steyer has one other trait in common with Mr. Trump: He is willing to spar directly with members of his own party, for a combination of strategic and impulsive reasons.
After spending years as a donor to mainstream Democratic Party leaders, Mr. Steyer veered in a sharply confrontational direction after the 2016 election, trashing the “establishment” and taking aim at individual party elders.
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Toying with a run for the Senate, he publicly blasted Senator Dianne Feinstein, the long-serving moderate Democrat, and endorsed a liberal challenger to oppose her. Crusading for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, Mr. Steyer used his personal advocacy group to apply pressure on powerful House committee chairmen, like Representatives Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts and Jerrold Nadler of New York.
Should Mr. Steyer bring that pugilistic stance to the presidential race, it could represent a major disruption in a campaign largely defined by the candidates’ aversion to conflict. Outside of recent criticism directed at Mr. Biden — most notably by Ms. Harris — the Democrats have mostly shied away from direct confrontation.
If Mr. Steyer’s past is any guide, he may be unlikely to extend that gloves-on approach to his political competition. And if he decides that another candidate stands in his way — or that several do — he may be uniquely equipped to mount direct attacks through paid advertising.
The campaign might finally be televised
Of the tens of millions of dollars already raised and spent in the Democratic primary, only a trifling amount has been used to finance television commercials. The candidates have focused instead on building voter-mobilizing organizations, and on digital advertising.
That may change with Mr. Steyer’s entry.
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As an environmentalist and pro-impeachment activist, Mr. Steyer spent immense sums on television, including tens of millions of dollars’ worth of commercials during the 2018 elections demanding that Mr. Trump be removed from office. The ads featured Mr. Steyer himself in a starring role, a cardigan-clad tribune of moral outrage.
With no practical limit to his spending, Mr. Steyer can be expected to deliver his message aggressively over the airwaves, potentially crowding out other competitors who may hope to raise their profiles with paid advertising — but lack a billionaire’s checkbook.
But Mr. Steyer’s reliance on traditional advertising also speaks to his flaws as a candidate: Unlike other candidates, he lacks a record of well-known accomplishments to build on. And starting so late in the race, he may have to buy the kind of stature that others — like Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren — have built chiefly with their oratory and ideas.