Tom Steyer Is Telling Allies He’s Running for President

The billionaire Democratic donor who has led a movement to impeach Donald Trump could be the latest to join the crowded field of candidates.

Steven Senne / AP

The presidential-campaign announcements may not be over yet—with the latest potentially coming from a person who ruled out a run just a few months ago.

The billionaire investor Tom Steyer, who in the past decade has been both the top Democratic donor in the country and the prime engine for pushing for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, appears ready to become Democratic candidate No. 26. Last week in San Francisco, Steyer told staffers at two progressive organizations he funds, Need to Impeach and NextGen America, that he is launching a 2020 campaign, and that he plans to make the formal announcement this Tuesday.

But don’t take that to the bank yet—Steyer had told people to expect his presidential run in January, and he had even scheduled a trip to Iowa for a kickoff, only to change his mind in the final days before the launch. That resulted in what was perhaps a first in presidential politics: a trip to Iowa to announce he was not running. Instead, Steyer hosted a town hall for his Need to Impeach group, which currently has 8 million members and in the space of two years has become the largest progressive-leaning organization in the country.

Similarly, Steyer had been expected to announce a U.S. Senate run in 2016 and a gubernatorial run in 2018, both for California. He had even recorded a commercial for the latter run before pulling the plug. (Multiple people on his staff learned that he was not running then from public reports.)

The 2020 race has remained alluring, though, especially considering that there won’t be an open Democratic race for California governor until 2026 and that he’s unlikely to be the top pick for a California Senate seat. At 62 years old, Steyer knows that the time for him to run is now or never, people who’ve spoken to him tell me.

Heather Hargreaves, the executive director of NextGen America and a central player in Steyer’s campaign planning, declined to comment on his plans and on the meeting in which Steyer made the announcement to staff. “I can’t comment right now,” she told me Sunday night when reached by text.

Steyer told people in January that part of the reason he wasn’t running for president was that he was satisfied with the economic message that Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts presented. Long focused on environmental advocacy, he was also excited by Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s focus on climate change as the priority issue of his campaign. However, people who’ve spoken to Steyer told me that while he still speaks fondly of Warren, he’s been frustrated that Inslee’s campaign hasn’t taken off more. (Inslee has yet to break 1 percent in the polls.) According to these people, Steyer has talked about seeing an opening to challenge Trump on the economy and take him on as a successful businessman who’s an actual self-made man and who believes in progressive economics.

Trump “has no strategy. He has an attitude: belligerence. It’s no surprise that he is failing,” Steyer tweeted on Sunday evening, sharing a New York Times op-ed about Trump’s trade war with China.

According to people who’ve spoken with him, Steyer has also been disappointed that House Democrats haven’t moved more quickly in holding impeachment hearings. He’s been leading and pumping millions of dollars into Need to Impeach and NextGen America, in addition to the Democratic campaign group For Our Future. (His campaign would be separate from those groups while he invests in his 2020 run.) And even after donating millions to those organizations, Steyer has more than enough in his own fortune to outspend the Democratic field so far.

Steyer has never seemed settled on his decision to skip the presidential race. When we sat down at the end of May to talk about impeachment, I asked him whether he regretted not running, and he told me, “I said at the time I think [Need to Impeach] is the most consequential thing I can do. We’ll see. This is a fast-moving thing. Stuff happened today. Stuff happened yesterday. Stuff happened the day before.”

Is that just the usual political answer—not quite closing the door, but not being serious about running? I asked him. “I don’t know the difference between those two things,” he replied.

According to people I’ve spoken with, he seems to have sorted out the difference in the past few days.