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Can Tom Steyer Disrupt the Democratic Primary?

This past week, Tom Steyer visited the Hamburg Inn No. 2, a family diner in Iowa City that has drawn the likes of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, not to mention the fictional congressman Matt Santos, of Texas, on a surprisingly faithful episode of “The West Wing.” Inside the wood-panelled dining room, television crews readied themselves by the kitchen doors and servers swerved past with Sloppy Joes and slices of homemade cherry pie. As Steyer made the rounds, most of the diners ignored him, seemingly accustomed to the intrusion. Others, like Linda Annis, a business administrator, had shown up specifically to meet the candidate. She saved Steyer a seat at her table, where she sat with two friends, and beckoned over members of the press, describing her group as “Republicans who love a Democrat.”

“You’re a Republican?” one of her friends asked, from across the table.

“I was,” she said. “Before Trump.” She pointed to Steyer. “Now I love him.”

Steyer, who has sandy-blond hair and an air of West Coast vigor, represents the antithesis of Trump in more than a few respects. But his candidacy, like Trump’s, rests on the premise that a billionaire who has never held office is well suited to the White House. This was only Steyer’s second trip to Iowa as a candidate, but, as he stressed to everyone, he has local roots. His late uncle, Sam Fahr, taught constitutional law at the University of Iowa for decades; that afternoon, Steyer planned to visit his ninety-nine-year-old aunt at the Oaknoll Retirement Community, a few blocks away. At a booth in the back of the Hamburg Inn, Steyer told two diners who identified themselves as local businessmen that he had earned an M.B.A. at Stanford. When one of the men remarked that the degree sounded expensive, Steyer, unfazed, recounted what he described as “the biggest fight I ever had with my father.” His old man wanted to pay his tuition, but Steyer, a recent alumnus of Yale, where he graduated with highest honors and captained the varsity soccer team, wanted to support himself. In the end, Steyer said, “I wrote the check, but my father deposited the money in my account anyway.”

Steyer’s aim in these interactions, he later explained to me, is to neutralize the negative connotations of his wealth. For all his fortune, he dresses modestly. His watch, he told me, costs a hundred and fifty dollars. He sticks to one tie, a handsome tartan number, and his colorful belt, fashioned by female artisans in Kenya, functions less as a statement piece than as a conversation starter, an opportunity to remind Americans that “the world is a better place when we educate women and girls.” He spurns private air travel and other wasteful habits; earlier this summer, dismounting the soapbox on a sweltering day in August, he refused a plastic water bottle from a supporter at the state fair. “I would assume that the first thing people know about me is that I’m a billionaire,” Steyer said. “The first thing I have to do is to explain that that’s not really who I am.”

Until July, when Steyer announced his candidacy, he had occupied a comfortable perch on the sidelines of the political establishment. After stepping down, in 2012, from the helm of Farallon Capital Management, his investment firm, Steyer directed a sizable portion of his wealth—some of which stems from investments in fossil-fuel companies—toward national efforts to curb the influence of corporate power in politics. (Steyer claims to have divested his personal funds from dirty projects, though confidentiality agreements prevent him from disclosing the entirety of his assets.) As an activist, Steyer has organized voter-turnout movements and underwritten the campaigns of Democratic congressional candidates in swing districts, spending more than a hundred million dollars in the most recent midterm elections. A hint of self-promotion has always shadowed these efforts; Steyer, brawny and voluble, has appeared in self-financed commercials for the better part of the decade, and he has flirted with runs for office before. One of the clearest signs that he might consider a bid for the country’s highest office came in 2017, when Trump responded to Steyer’s impeachment campaign by calling him “wacky & totally unhinged,” an insult that appeared to double as an anointment. In January, Steyer denied rumors that he might run, telling the press that he preferred to continue his efforts to take down Trump from a distance. When he reneged on this pledge, launching his bid with a four-minute video focussed on his political philanthropy and grassroots credentials, the decision seemed both surprising and inevitable. The patron of the Party had at last become the opponent of its front-runners.

Steyer is now the eleventh candidate to qualify for next month’s Democratic debates. His addition to the lineup, which might force networks, once again, to spread the proceedings across two nights, appeared to be the result of an expensive advertising blitz unrivalled by any of Steyer’s opponents. Bernie Sanders, who has said that he likes Steyer personally, told Andrea Mitchell, of MSNBC, that he was “a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power.” Elizabeth Warren, on Twitter, expressed a pointed belief that “the Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves.” Earlier this summer, before Steyer entered the race, the Times asked the Democratic field whether anyone deserved to have a billion dollars. More than a few of the candidates said no.

Part of the challenge for Steyer, at this stage, is that his ideology does not especially distinguish him from many of his competitors. Were he a moderate, his late entry in the race might seem clearer—to rope the Party back toward centrist pragmatism. Instead, Steyer has cast himself as an outsider capable of realizing even the most progressive campaign promises. “My basic thesis is that we have a broken government,” he told me, adding that the top three candidates in the polls have served in Congress or the Senate for about seventy years. “We have to stop the corporations’ stranglehold on this government. So, if that is the issue, the question is who’s going to be credible in terms of making that happen.”

In his early visits to Iowa, though, his bid has felt somewhat abstract. When, at the diner, he roved from table to table, asking Iowans to name their top policy concerns, the impression was of a cheery executive crowdsourcing his own priorities. During another stump speech on his swing, Steyer outlined the five priorities central to his political identity—voting-rights protections, a clean environment, a complete education, a living wage, and good health—and pointed out that none of the candidates at the previous night’s debate had brought up the climate crisis. He later told me that the first debates, which he found uninspiring, had contributed to his decision to run. “I felt they weren’t really getting down to the nub of what’s going on in the United States,” he said, of the other candidates. “I am categorically, qualitatively different, and, in my opinion, what I am saying is much more realistic and much more significant than anything they’re saying. As far as I’m concerned, I have a very simple task—not an easy task, but simple—to try and see if I have something important to say to the American people.”

On Friday, a few dozen people, mostly seniors, convened in Maquoketa for a town hall hosted by Bob Osterhaus, a pharmacist who served in the Iowa state legislature until 2004. Osterhaus has seen a number of politicians pass through his home, including Bill Bradley, Chris Dodd, and John Dean, who told Osterhaus’s wife that her cinnamon rolls were the best he’d ever had. “It’s always interesting when a rich man decides to get in and try to act like a commoner,” Osterhaus said of Steyer before the event. The candidate was running late. When he arrived, a number of audience members praised him for his tough stance on Trump and his enduring advocacy for impeachment. “Look,” Steyer told the crowd. “Mr. Trump was a fake and a failure as a businessman. He played a businessman on TV, but his actual business career was a resounding failure.” Steyer reminded the group that he had started his own company “in one room, with no windows and no employees,” and built a “multibillion-dollar international business,” only to give it up because of his concern for the public sector. By the end of the event, Osterhaus, who seemed impressed, dismissed any suggestion that Steyer’s wealth was a liability. “The people voted for Trump,” Osterhaus said. In theory, he added, “Why the hell wouldn’t they vote for Steyer?”

Steyer, of course, lacks a few of the advantages that propelled Trump to the nomination, most notably a preëxisting aura of celebrity and an aggrieved constituency whose interests he appears to represent better than the other candidates. Another difference is that Steyer appeals more to optimism than to aggrievement. “I do think we have to take back our government, and I do think we need to stabilize this climate crisis,” he said toward the end of his speech. “But I want to point out that, if we do, we are in the best position of any people in the history of this planet. We are rich enough and we are technologically capable enough to guarantee a level of security and support for every American better than people understand.” It was an enticing vision—a taste of optimism in a race that has mostly evoked catastrophe. As a donor and an idealist, he has demonstrated his ability to marshal support for worthy causes. The greater challenge will be doing the same when the cause is himself.

ViaNewYorker