Steyer Meets Debate's Donor Requirement, Draws Complaints From Left

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock says Steyer bought his way in to Sept. debates

Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful and billionaire activist Tom Steyer at the Iowa State Fair / Getty Images
August 13, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer and his team announced Tuesday his campaign reached 130,000 individual donors, one of the critical benchmarks that candidates must reach to make the next debate one month from now.

If Steyer can reach the other requirement — to poll at 2 percent in four qualifying polls — which seems likely given his recent rise in a number of nationwide surveys, he will become the tenth candidate to qualify for the September debates.

The announcement drew swift criticism from fellow Democrats, many of whom accused the California billionaire of buying his way into qualifying.

"The DNC donor requirement may have been added with the right intentions, but there’s no doubt it’s created a situation where billionaires can buy their way onto the debate stage, and campaigns are forced to spend millions on digital ads chasing one dollar donors – not talking directly to donors," Montana governor Steve Bullock said in a prepared statement.

"We're kidding ourselves if we're calling a $10 million purchase of 130,000 donors a demonstration of grassroots support," he added. "It's not serving the candidates, and it sure isn't helping the voters who will actually decide this election."

Bullock repeated his criticism on MSNBC, telling Andrea Mitchell "It's a rough day when Democrats are less inclusive than Republicans."

That Steyer was well positioned to pass these criteria has been noticeable for some time.

Well over a year ago, the Daily Beast concluded Steyer's impeachment campaign was "building him a political Death Star" as his independent efforts were racking up millions of email contacts.

"His campaign bought 8 million voter files compiled by the group Need to Impeach and is renting data from NexGen America, two advocacy organizations that Steyer himself founded and still funds," the Atlantic reported early Tuesday morning.

Steyer flip-flopped on his presidential ambitions just over a month ago. In January, he announced from Des Moines, Iowa, he would not run for president, but then reversed himself in early July.

Before dropping out in January, other presidential rivals were taking shots at Steyer, as well as his money.

"I think this is a moment for all of the Democratic candidates as they come into the race to say: In a Democratic primary, we are going to link arms and we're going to grass-roots funding. No to the billionaires," Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.) said on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.

"No to the billionaires whether they are self-funding or whether they're funding PACs. We are the Democratic Party, and that is the party of the people. That's how we not only win elections, that's how we build movements that make real change."

Since jumping back in the race in July, Steyer has spent more than two million — most of it his own money — on digital ads, mainly Facebook.

"Tom Steyer spent $2.9 million in 30 days on Facebook ads begging for $1 donations," journalist Michael Tracey tweeted. "As of Aug. 11, he is spending $140K per day. Remember when Dems blamed Facebook for subverting democracy? They turned around and devised a system that is enriching Facebook at preposterous levels."

Some in the Steyer camp have fired back, however, claiming the complaints are dismissive of who the donors actually are.

"Fewer than half of Tom's donations came from advertising," his campaign manager, Heather Hargreaves tweeted. "Writing off the support of thousands of Democratic voters who are responding to Tom's message isn’t the way to beat Trump in 2020 no matter what you think about the DNC’s criteria."