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Tom Steyer will plow $30 million into midterms, but won’t run for office in 2018

Democratic donor Tom Steyer said on Jan. 8 that he won't be running for office in 2018, but will be pouring more money into mobilizing and organizing voters. (Video: Reuters)

Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who has spent more than $100 million since 2016 on political campaigns, will forgo any run for office this year and focus instead on ending Republican control of the House of Representatives.

“People have been asking me for 12 months and five days what I’m going to run for,” Steyer said in an interview before a news conference in downtown D.C. “I’m not going to run for anything. I’ve said all along, the question I always ask is: Where can I make the most differential impact? And when I look at the jobs I can run for in California, they all have reputable Democrats running for them already.”

Steyer’s decision removes some of the drama from California’s races for governor and U.S. Senate, which had attracted ambitious Democrats who had been wanting to move up for years. The billionaire, who plunged into politics in 2013 when he founded NextGen Climate to advocate for Democrats, had been discussed as a 2016 candidate for Senate and seen by some 2018 gubernatorial candidates as a dark horse who could jump in late.

“He’s running. He’s been running,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) told Politico in late 2016 during a conversation about Steyer’s spending on voter registration efforts. “It’s going to be a very crowded field.”

Having ruled that out, and while raising his national presence with a $20 million campaign to impeach President Trump, Steyer now plans to spend $30 million to build NextGen Rising, his 2018 campaign to increase millennial voter turnout. The targets are 24 Republican-controlled congressional districts and a handful of swing seats currently held by Democrats, in 10 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. That money will supplement ongoing Steyer-funded NextGen efforts; it could also be increased as the campaign goes on.

Among the targets are all seven Republican-controlled California districts where Donald Trump ran behind Hillary Clinton; six districts in Pennsylvania, where Clinton made some gains in the suburbs of Philadelphia among moderate Republicans; three districts in South Florida; and Wisconsin’s first district, where House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R) has been safely reelected, but ironworker Randy Bryce has raised millions of dollars for an insurgent Democratic challenge.

The 2018 midterms are fast approaching. First up: Primary fights for both parties’ future.

“I’m going to continue to work on the grass-roots efforts we had in place, and amplify them, and make them bigger,” Steyer said. “We’re going to register voters, then encourage them to participate. That means we want to talk about issues people care most about. We need to — just go back and look at millennial turnout in 2014, the last midterms. It’s shocking how low it was.”

In the interview, Steyer did not set out conditions for Democrats in these races, or suggest that he would intervene in primaries. As in Virginia, where NextGen spent $2 million to register and turn out young voters, Steyer wanted to put his money behind voter mobilization to get Republicans out of office, and it would take 24 Republican defeats to flip the House.

Steyer would not, in other words, intervene in races only if the Democrats promised to pursue the impeachment of the president. That was the sort of action that worried Democrats last year, when Steyer launched a “Need to Impeach” campaign that has put him on cable news commercial breaks — identified as “Tom Steyer, citizen” — many times a day.

“I don’t see those two efforts as being separate,” said Steyer of the midterm campaign and the impeachment campaign. “There’s just a differential positive impact. There’s no question that what we’re doing with Need to Impeach addresses the biggest threat to the United States, which is a lawless administration at the head of a radical right-wing party. But by definition, a campaign called ‘Need to Impeach’ is not a permanent thing, whereas a grassroots organization of millennials should be.”

On Monday morning, Steyer made his decision official in a room jam-packed with reporters. The very first question dealt with whether Steyer would back any potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, and whether he’d seen Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes.

“It was a fantastic speech, but we’re all in for November 6, 2018,” said Steyer. “I view this as a sprint to that election, with every single day being important.”

In his extended remarks, Steyer said that he’d be “turning Need to Impeach into a vehicle for an unprecedented engagement effort,” and described a new campaign that began over the weekend — a drive to deliver a copy of “Fire and Fury,” the scalding White House profile by Michael Wolff, to every member of Congress.

But the impeachment issue, the focus of Steyer’s ongoing and personal campaign, would not determine whether Steyer stayed in the field. NextGen Rising, he said, would register and turnout voters whether or not a candidate in the targeted district had pledged to impeach the president.

“What we are going to try to do,” said Steyer, “is enable the voice of the American people to demand action from their representatives, as opposed to making it some kind of litmus test.”