Campaigns

Tom Steyer launches presidential run, but also pledges $50 million to outside groups

Billionaire makes corporate influence and climate change central themes in campaign

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer speaks to supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, in January. (Steve Pope/Getty Images file photo)

Billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer jumped into the presidential race Tuesday, but he still plans to spend millions through outside groups that influenced 2018 elections for House and Senate and could do so again in 2020.

Steyer said he is resigning from groups he founded and financed, NextGen America and Need to Impeach, but is still committing $50 million to both. That could give him a unique position as a late entrant in a field of two dozen candidates as he tries to build support in states where the organizations he funds are airing ads and organizing activists.

In his presidential announcement, Steyer spun his activities as an improvement to the political system.

“We’ve got to take the corporate control out of our politics,” Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and environmental activist, said in his four-minute video release. “All these issues go away when you take away the paid opposition from corporations who make trillions of extra dollars by controlling our political system.”

Steyer did not refer to President Donald Trump, although one of his major efforts has been building support to impeach the president. His launch video’s montage decrying the concentration of wealth in the hands of “a few very, very rich people” did feature the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted on sex trafficking charges on Monday.

Steyer is still pledging $50 million to both of his outside groups. NextGen America is focused on mobilizing young voters while Need to Impeach has been pressuring lawmakers to support Trump’s impeachment.  

In 2018, NextGen spent $33 million in 11 states on digital ads, registering nearly 260,000 voters and getting them to the polls. The group employed 750 staffers and had a presence on 419 campuses across the country.

The group touted the increase in youth voter turnout as evidence that its efforts worked. In a memo, NextGen linked to research estimating that 31 percent of young voters voted in the latest midterm elections, a sizable increase from 20 percent turnout during the 2018 midterms.

Steyer-NextGen-01

Steyer previously touted his groups’ impact in a series of tweets back in January, when it appeared he would be running for president. Steyer instead announced he would not run and focus instead on building impeachment support.

Steyer reversed course Tuesday, saying in a news release “The other Democratic candidates for president have many great ideas that will absolutely move our country forward, but we won’t be able to get any of those done until we end the hostile corporate takeover of our democracy.”

Two of Steyer's liberal rivals, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, swiped at Steyer's wealth in reacting to his candidacy. 

Sanders said in a statement that he liked Steyer personally, "but I do have to say as somebody who in this campaign has received received 2 million contributions, averaging $19 a person, I'm a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power."

Warren did not name Steyer appeared to reference his campaign announcement in a tweet Tuesday afternoon.

"The Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves," Warren said. "The strongest Democratic nominee in the general will have a coalition that’s powered by a grassroots movement.

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