Could Tom Steyer Push Impeachment Talk Back Into The Democratic Primary?

“It’s a bit of a bank shot. It’s probably better to just apply the pressure directly if that’s your main goal.”
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US

WASHINGTON — Democrats have barely been talking about impeachment during their crowded, presidential primary battle. That may be about to change.

Billionaire and pro-impeachment pied piper Tom Steyer appears set to announce a run for president (unless he changes his mind again, as he has before).

It’s hard to see Steyer winning the nomination — there isn’t exactly a clamoring from the Democratic base for a billionaire white dude to jump in. But he and his money could force impeachment back into the spotlight, just as special counsel Robert Mueller prepares to testify before Congress.


The Democratic presidential field went four full hours without a single question about impeachment during the first round of debates late last month, and no candidate has paid much attention to it on the campaign trail. But while the issue has largely faded from the news, it’s hardly disappeared. A number of House Democrats continue to clamor for the party to begin impeachment proceedings, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top deputies have battled to quash the effort.

Enter Steyer, who spent millions on ads pushing the need to impeach Trump through his aptly named group Need to Impeach last election cycle. In 2018 alone, he dropped $120 million to help Democratic candidates and push his top issues into the national conversation. He has the resources to spend at least that much this time around if he so chooses.

“It’d be a mistake to write off somebody with the ability to spend $100 million or more on themselves and the issues people care about, like climate change,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas, an alum of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Mueller’s July 17 House testimony will undoubtedly draw a ton of attention, and could create renewed pressure on Democrats to move forward on an impeachment inquiry. Steyer could sustain that pressure if he’s in the race and throwing his money around on pro-impeachment ads. Suddenly, instead of talking about health care and immigration, Democratic hopefuls could find themselves embroiled in a lengthy debate over whether to impeach Trump — something most believe is the right thing to do morally — or whether to avoid impeachment out of fear it’ll hurt their chances to defeat the president next year.


Steyer wouldn’t be the first candidate to talk tough on impeachment, however. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first major candidate to forcefully call for Trump’s impeachment after Mueller released his report. Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Jay Inslee followed suit after Mueller’s press conference.

The billionaire activist will also face an uphill battle even qualifying for a podium on the debate stage. He’d need to score 1% in three polls very quickly to get into the next debate. The subsequent debates require both a 2% threshold in four polls and 130,000 donors, a target that could be hard to reach for a self-funder.

Even Democrats who’ve been pushing hard for the House to open an impeachment inquiry aren’t sure whether a Steyer campaign will do much to move the issue. Some wonder whether he might be better served staying out of the campaign and simply running ads pressuring House Democrats to move forward on impeachment.

“It’s a bit of a bank shot. It’s probably better to just apply the pressure directly if that’s your main goal,” said Adam Jentleson, a top adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I don’t think a lot of Democratic voters are looking at the current field and saying what we really need right now is a white guy billionaire.”

Cover: Billionaire investor and Democratic activist Tom Steyer speaks during a "Need to Impeach" town hall event, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Agawam, Mass. Steyer claims that President Donald Trump meets the criteria for impeachment. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)