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 campaign, 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 said in an interview that he would hit the campaign trail quickly: After speaking at the liberal Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia, he said he would campaign in the early primary state of South Carolina. He said he would unveil a plan for “structural changes” in the campaign finance system in the next few weeks and pledged to release his tax returns, though he did not set a deadline for doing so.
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 in a Democratic Party preoccupied with racial diversity and gender equality.
Yet his candidacy instantly transformed the financial shape of the primary. Alberto Lammers, a spokesman for his campaign, said Mr. Steyer planned to spend “at least $100 million” on the race.
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 the targets in his announcement video: 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.”
In the interview Tuesday, Mr. Steyer endorsed several policy stances that aligned him squarely, though not uniformly, with the progressive wing of his party. He said he supported decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings and expanding the size of the Supreme Court, and endorsed the creation of a government-backed health care option but not the elimination of private health insurance. People should shift toward government-backed care “by choice, not by fiat,” he said.
There is little doubt that a message of government reform has broad appeal to Democrats. But Mr. Steyer is also now on his third signature issue in little more than half a decade — after first championing climate change 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.
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 problems like economic inequality.
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.
In the interview, Mr. Steyer allowed there were “some superficial comparisons” between himself and Mr. Trump, but said they would disintegrate “if you look at who I am, what I’ve done, what I stand for.”
“I have been, for the last 7 to 10 years, going across America and looking citizens in the eye in almost all the states,” he said. “I have been listening to what their concerns are.”
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.
Still, even as Mr. Steyer has clashed with Democratic leaders, he has continued to underwrite the party’s campaigns and causes prolifically — a practice he said would continue during the presidential race. His funding for voter-turnout initiatives aimed at state-level elections, he said, would continue unabated.
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 lack a billionaire’s checkbook.
But Mr. Steyer’s reliance on his personal wealth and traditional advertising also speaks to his flaws as a candidate: Unlike other contenders, 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.
Asked why he would opt to run a campaign with his personal fortune, rather than seeking out small-donor support, Mr. Steyer deflected the question.
”I think the point on this,” he said, “is going to be: who connects with the American people?”