Ask Tom Steyer why he's doing something that confuses people, and he laughs. The greater the skepticism, the longer the laugh. In an interview Tuesday, asked if he decided to run for president because House Democrats were not heeding his multimillion-dollar campaign and impeaching President Trump, Steyer laughed for seven seconds — because of course Democrats were blowing it.
“They've had one hearing so far, with Michael Cohen, and it was months ago,” he said. “So yes, I'm frustrated. And really, what I’m saying now is that our politics are broken by corporate money, the solution is pushing power to people, and I am convinced that it will take someone from the outside to do it.”
Steyer, who said six months ago that he would not run for president, entered the race to a reception that ranged from chilly to confused. Democrats in early states said no one was really clamoring for Steyer. Activists who had thanked him for investing in downballot organizing turned on him for saying he'd spend $100 million on a presidential campaign. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who had designed his campaign as a “grass-roots movement” that would neutralize the corporate “establishment,” said Steyer was getting this whole thing backward.
“I like Tom personally,” Sanders said in an interview with MSNBC, “but I do have to say, as somebody who in this campaign has received nearly 1 million contributions averaging $19 a person, I'm a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power.”
For some Democratic voters, the presidential primary became a little ridiculous months ago, when more candidates filed to run than could fit on two debate stages. In the past few weeks, polling and campaign activity have separated a small number of Democrats from the field, though just one of the stragglers has quit. This coming Sunday, 12 Democrats will appear at a “corn feed” in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, organized by the liberal group Progress Iowa; only two of the attendees, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), have polled higher than 1 percent in the state.
Steyer's candidacy, coming one day after the end of Rep. Eric Swalwell of California's campaign, tests a proposition that became popular with Democrats after 2016: that there was no real downside to running for president. Swalwell, a frequent Fox News guest who could not cajole the network into hosting a town hall for his campaign (his poll numbers were too low), was less influential as a candidate than as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Steyer, one of the biggest political donors in the history of the country, was massively influential in that role; as a candidate for president, he will miss the cut for a televised debate that will give microphones to spiritual author Marianne Williamson.
Swalwell referred to the collected Democratic candidates as “the Avengers,” implying that voters were happy to see them. But it's common to hear Democratic voters rattle off their “top three” or “top five,” and, increasingly, it's common to hear them pine for something that would cut down the field.
“It’s just huge, and we’ve obviously got to set some rules to narrow down the field,” said Jeffrey Kolb, a real estate agent who came to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) speak in Houston. “Are they really going to wait until the primary and then have all these people on the ballot? It’s like: Oh, my God. It’s really going to dilute and drag this out.”
Candidates who have tried and failed to break through don't agree on whether it was worth it. At a news conference that ended his campaign, Swalwell argued that he had become a better representative for his Bay Area constituents because he'd traveled the country as a candidate. But Richard Ojeda, a former West Virginia state senator who started and ended a campaign in less than 40 days, said it hadn't been worth it to run.
"’I never heard Chuck Todd say the words 'presidential candidate Richard Ojeda' until I wasn't a candidate anymore,” Ojeda said. “And when I was a candidate, I couldn't get my message out. One woman from San Francisco sent me $1,000, and that was it for me. I didn’t want to take people's' money for a losing cause.”
Ojeda, who became politically famous after a punchy (but unsuccessful) 2018 congressional bid, is now using name recognition gained during that run to get legislators to look at a “veterans bill of rights,” with ideas such as making it easy for military members who drive equipment in war zones to become truckers in the United States. But the White House bid, he said, did not advance his ideas, because he wasn't taken seriously.
“The day I dropped out, the Starbucks guy got in, Howard Schultz got in, and CNN gave him a town hall,” Ojeda said. “Why? Because he's a billionaire.”
Steyer, of course, is a billionaire, though there are reasons to doubt it will help him in a Democratic primary. In last month's national AP-NORC poll, just 26 percent of Democrats said they preferred a candidate with “experience running a business,” which Steyer has; 73 percent said they wanted one with “experience in elected office,” which he doesn't.
When he passed on a 2020 run, Steyer held a series of town halls on the issues he wanted to see advanced in 2020. Other candidates have been running on those positions: Sanders and Warren have eschewed traditional fundraisers, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has focused his campaign on the threat of climate change.
Asked what he can run on that Democrats with political experience can't, Steyer touts his lack of Washington experience. “I am an outsider from outside the system, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he said, pointing to the voter turnout (and advertising) work of NextGen, which he founded. “If you look at 2018, we doubled youth turnout. And I think the question here for every single person who’s running is: Who can connect with Americans? Who can rewrite the electorate and get us organized? That is the question. You can’t buy that.”
In his launch video and interviews Tuesday, Steyer emphasized his wealth and inability to be “bought” over individual issues. On climate, he said Democrats were talking too much about “what the best Green New Deal is” instead of mobilizing around an existential threat. On health care, he landed in the center of the Democratic field, preferring a public option over immediate single-payer health care: “If you’re asking if I’m in favor of abolishing employment-based health care, the answer is no.”
Sanders also emphasized that he had left NextGen in shape to keep organizing downballot — “it's up and running, manned and wo-manned” — but rejected the idea that the money spent on a presidential bid could be better spent elsewhere.
Steyer, who has plowed tens of millions of dollars into his “Need to Impeach” advertising, is set to spent nearly $1 million on an early TV blitz for his campaign; according to Advertising Analytics, he has $420,000 booked in Iowa, $262,000 in New Hampshire, $232,000 in South Carolina and $138,000 in Nevada. It’s not clear how much early TV ads still matter; one of the first Democrats to buy TV ad time, one month ago, was Eric Swalwell.
Holly Bailey contributed reporting from Houston.
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If you're a typical Democratic consultant who wants to cut ads for a candidate, the Warren campaign is not for you.
"The ignoring of Kirsten Gillibrand,” by Anna Peele
Why a campaign years in the making has not caught on.
Jay Inslee, before the Tom Steyer deluge.
A candidacy that makes plenty of sense on paper struggles to get noticed in Iowa.
WHAT I'M WATCHING
The Club for Growth, which raised $50 million for pro-Republican advertising for the 2018 election and is shooting to raise more for 2020, is focusing its fire on the “majority maker” Democrats who won swing seats in the 2018 wave. Its tactic: tracking how often they vote with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, then informing voters that their new Democratic members of Congress turned out to be rank-and-file leftists.
“Of those 43 majority makers, a quarter of them went on the record saying they would not vote to make Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “What this data shows is that the their premise was untrue; all of them vote with Pelosi, and half of them line up with her 100 percent of the time.”
The conservative group, which began compiling the vote records six months ago, is speaking in sync with the other groups that are trying to wrest back the House from Democrats. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to the House GOP, regularly points out how often the targeted Democrats vote with Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez by linking to FiveThirtyEight’s running vote tally.
“It cuts in two ways,” McIntosh said. “First, Nancy Pelosi is widely disliked; even Trump runs better in these suburban districts. So, you're linking the Democrats to someone voters don’t like. And the second dimension to the argument, which can be more lethal, is: 'Hey, you promised us you’d be different, and you’re not.' It goes to their integrity.”
The Democratic response is a hearty: “Huh?” The speaker of the House does not vote on legislation; when Pelosi has done so this year, it’s been to add her name on one of the Democrats’ priority bills — 7 percent of total House votes.
Those bills have been crafted to be popular or even uncontroversial. Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, rattled off the votes to “lower prescription drug costs, fix our broken immigration system, and protect the right to vote for every American.” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman, pointed out that some of the bills had gotten Republican votes.
“In 2018, Republicans threw everything but the kitchen sink at Nancy Pelosi, and that idiotic strategy led to the election of the most diverse House of Representatives in history,” Hammill said.
The Club’s list was not singling out individual votes, and McIntosh emphasized that some of the key 2018 Democrats had told voters they were not going to back Pelosi for speaker — the data, he said, “speaks for itself.”
Kirsten Gillibrand, “Promises.” The senator from New York's first ad does not feature her image or voice until it's almost over. For 20 seconds, it focuses instead on President Trump, playing back some of his more definitive 2020 promises (“you will not lose a single [manufacturing] plant”) and pointing out where they fell short. The ad will run on cable in six media markets where Gillibrand is campaigning — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — on a trip to attack the president for “broken promises.”
Jon Bel Edwards for Louisiana, “Surplus.” The first general-election ad from Louisiana's Democratic governor portrays him as a savior: the man who took office after Bobby Jindal, the state's first two-term Republican governor to preside over GOP legislature, blew a hole in the budget.
“We've turned that deficit into a surplus,” says a narrator, “while there's still work to do.”
Closing the budget gap was a defining story of Edwards's first four years. With Republican support, he raised the sales tax from 4 to 5 percent, then lowered it to 4.45 percent; unlike many red-state governors, he poured higher revenue after the federal 2017 tax cut back into the state.
Republican Governors Association, “Left Behind.” Launched the very same day as the “JBE” spot, the RGA's opening argument to oust the governor is that he's not Donald Trump. After 10 seconds of the president talking about tax cuts, a narrator intones that “Democrat Jon Bel Edwards raised taxes, just the opposite of Trump,” so it's “no wonder our workers are leaving.” Unemployment has dipped in Louisiana since Edwards's election from 6.1 percent to 4.4 percent, but it continues to lag behind neighboring Texas and Arkansas, and that's the crux of this year's Republican argument.
A new study by SmartNews, a company that vacuums up online content and uses data to promote the most impartial stories, has some more evidence that the first Democratic debates helped Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris — and that Elizabeth Warren's appeal stayed steady. Among their findings:
— People following the primary have spent a disproportionate amount of time reading about Buttigieg. SmartNews clocked 312 articles about him after the debate, but those articles got 5.2 million pageviews; Bernie Sanders, the subject of a relatively equal amount of coverage, inspired 3.9 million pageviews. Warren, the subject of 440 articles, inspired 3.6 million pageviews.
— Among the five candidates riding highest in polls — Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg — Sanders's fundraising is running the furthest ahead of his media attention. Articles about Sanders got 35.9 million pageviews in the second quarter, while he raised $18 million; articles about Biden got 87.7 million pageviews, while he raised $21 million.
Meanwhile, down the ballot, in races that have gotten little national attention:
Michigan. Sen. Gary Peters, one of the GOP's top targets in 2018, raised $2.3 million over the second quarter; two years ago, Sen. Debbie Stabenow raised $2.1 million over the same period. Peters is now expecting to face the same Republican who Stabenow faced last year: John James, a veteran and businessman who has not held elected office. Some of the GOP's strategy here has been to reintroduce James before Peters, one of the lesser-known members of the Senate, can reintroduce himself.
New Jersey. Republican legislator Tom Kean, a candidate for the swingy 7th District, raised “more than $500,000" in the second quarter, validation for Republicans who have been urging him to seek higher office for years. (Kean, the son of an iconic former governor of the same name, ran and lost a 2006 race for the Senate.) His opponent, freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski, had raised $560,000 last quarter, and the race is looked at as a test of whether the GOP can compete in suburban districts with President Trump leading their ballot. Early attacks on Malinowski have been designed to make him look extreme, highlighting his eventual support for impeachment and a moment when he ignored a tracker who was asking about a comparison by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) of migrant detention centers to concentration camps.
IN THE STATES
North Carolina. It's Election Day, again: Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District are choosing their nominee for the Sept. 10 special election to replace the late Walter Jones. On April 30, Republicans narrowed a 17-candidate field down to state Rep. Greg Murphy and physician Joan Perry; that kicked off a proxy battle between Republican women in the House, who want to add to their low numbers, and the House Freedom Caucus, which wants to do the same thing. At the moment, HFC members outnumber women in the House GOP conference by at least 2 to 1.
Back in April, it was hard to find much enthusiasm for a female nominee. Just three of the 17 GOP hopefuls were women; combined, they received just 20.1 percent of the vote. Since then, the new GOP PAC Winning for Women has poured $900,000 into the race, with advertising focused less on Perry herself than on Murphy's support for a version of Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. Murphy's own ads have portrayed Perry as a creature of “the Washington swamp,” based on her PAC support, and drawn attention to her 2012 vote for a Democratic congressman and her hesitation to support the president's emergency border declaration. Support for Trump, not gender, is the defining issue of the campaign.
Murphy won 22.5 percent of the vote in April, helped by a landslide margin in Pitt County, one of the most populous parts of the district. Perry won just 15.4 percent of the vote in round one; she was strongest in Lenoir County, pulled ahead in some rural counties, but had no obvious geographical base. Polls close at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
Kentucky. When Amy McGrath ran for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, Democrats saw the retired Marine fighter pilot as a future star. She narrowly lost that race, but Democrats never gave up on her; they leaned on her to challenge Mitch McConnell, and today, she obliged.
“Bit by bit, year by year, [McConnell] turned Washington into something we all despise,” McGrath said in her launch video.
McConnell's campaign, which is never caught unaware, welcomed McGrath to the race with an ad largely consisting of the attacks used effectively against the Democrat in 2018. (Most of them came from early interviews and town halls where, facing a contested primary, she described herself as a “progressive.") McGrath spent $8.3 million on the way to losing her House race, in a district where Trump ran 15 points behind his statewide margin.
Eric Swalwell's exit from the presidential race came down to one person he probably never met: a Democrat who told a Reuters-Ipsos pollster that he was supporting Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. That one result put Bullock in the mix for the July 30 and July 31 debates in Detroit, which made it likely that Swalwell would be cut, which destroyed his strategy.
Who is on track to make the debates? It's less complicated than it sounds. To make the Detroit debates, candidates will need to show, by midnight July 16, that they have either 1) hit 1 percent or more in three DNC-recognized polls or 2) gotten more than 65,000 unique donations. At the moment, it's likely that 19 of the Democrats who made the Miami debates will be back and that Bullock will take Swalwell's “torch,” so to speak. These candidates break into two groups.
In no matter what: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson. All of them have hit both the polling and donor thresholds.
In but not safe: Michael Bennet, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock and Bill de Blasio. Each has qualified by only one measure: They've hit 1 percent in at least three polls.
What about the other candidates looking for a debate berth?
Wayne Messam. The mayor of Miramar, Fla., who lost most of his staff shortly after announcing, is actually in the hunt for a debate slot: He got 1 percent support in the last CBS-YouGov poll of South Carolina.
Seth Moulton. He has yet to hit 1 percent in any poll and has a week to get three of them. A spokesman for his campaign said Moulton was “not close” to the 65,000 donations he'd need to make the stage.
Mike Gravel. His campaign is within 10,000 donations of the debate threshold. The July debates are do-or-die for the former Alaska senator and the teenagers running his campaign; they said that if they do not hit the threshold, or they hit it but are clipped by another candidate and miss the stage, the campaign will end and the donations will be redirected to charity.
Joe Sestak. The former Pennsylvania congressman is not expecting to make the debates at all; he only just began raising money and has not been included in polls, having declared his candidacy June 23.
Tom Steyer. He's the only real mystery in this bracket; between NextGen and Need to Impeach, he's signed up millions of people to email lists. If 65,000 of those people donate to him, he will be in competition for the debates. If not, it is probably impossible for him to make the polling threshold; no poll now in the field asks voters about him, and it would take three of them, starting probably no later than today, to get him onstage.
“We’re way too late” to make the July debate but will try to make September, Steyer said. “That would involve getting at least 135,000 donations. We are taking donations but will not do fundraisers.”
Bernie Sanders. Joined by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, he called for a climate emergency resolution, led by Congress, to shift more federal attention and resources toward combating climate change. "The issue here is not that we cannot address this problem," he said. "We know what has to be done, and that is massive investments in sustainable energy, transforming our infrastructure, transforming our transportation system."
Joe Biden. In a joint CNN interview with his wife Jill, he responded to the New Yorker's lengthy profile of his son, Hunter, which portrayed him as struggling to find balance and stay sober. “Hunter has been through some tough times, but he’s fighting. He’s never given up. He’s the most honorable, decent person I know,” Biden said.
Elizabeth Warren. She added a Wisconsin town hall to her Thursday swing into the state; she'll join a handful of other 2020 Democrats at the League of United Latin American Citizens the same day.
John Hickenlooper. He told the Denver Post that he took the blame for the weakness of his campaign over the past few months: “Certainly the vast majority of the problems with the campaign was me not being as good of a messenger as I need to be, but you can’t switch or trade in a new candidate.”
Steve Bullock. He's back in Iowa for the sixth time this week; the departure of Eric Swalwell from the race has made it all but certain that he'll get a July debate slot.
Tim Ryan. He scored endorsements from three of Manchester, N.H.'s 14 aldermen while on a campaign swing through South Carolina.
Tulsi Gabbard. She tweeted that Kamala Harris had made a “false accusation” of racism in last month's debate with Joe Biden; Gabbard had appeared on the other night of the two-part debate. Harris said to Biden in the exchange on racism, “I do not believe you are a racist.”
Bill Weld. He raised $688,000 from April through June and added a new spokesman; he spent the Fourth of July week in New Hampshire, where nearly all of his campaigning has taken place.
. . . seven days until the cutoff for the next Democratic debates
. . . 21 days until the Democratic debates take place in Detroit
. . . 84 days until the end of the next fundraising quarter