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Tom Steyer’s $100 Million Vanity Project

If he really cares about reforming American democracy, he shouldn't blow his money on a doomed presidential bid.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

What would you do if you suddenly received a check for $100 million? Many Americans would probably embrace a more lavish personal lifestyle: a bigger house, more expensive car, fancy overseas trips. Most would probably use the opportunity to pay off outstanding student loans, medical debt, or mortgages. Parents would invest in their kids’ education. Some might donate much of the sum to charity. A few might even turn it down.

All of those ideas make more sense than blowing it on a doomed presidential campaign, as Tom Steyer, a billionaire liberal donor and environmentalist, has decided to do. Steyer announced his candidacy on Tuesday, posting a video on Twitter in which he frames himself as a populist who would fight big corporations that have hijacked the nation’s political system. “Really what we’re doing is trying to make democracy work by pushing power down to the people,” he said.

It’s an admirable goal and a nonsensical way to achieve it. Steyer enters an already crowded field with 23 other Democrats vying for the nomination. Though he’s mirroring the language of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other candidates who are running on themes of inequality and corruption, it’s unclear whether a hedge-fund manager with no experience in elected office is the best evangelist of that message. His candidacy, if anything, seems to represent the problems that he says he would fix: A Steyer spokesman told The New York Times that he would be willing to spend “at least” $100 million to win the election.

There are better ways for someone with Steyer’s resources to tilt the balance of American political power in their preferred direction. The 2020 election cycle alone offers a few key opportunities, so long as you can afford it. He could fight Republican gerrymandering in the states, help Democrats retake the Senate, help millions of Americans register to vote, or even, given his conviction that Trump should be impeached, fund a primary challenge to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The best investment for a reform-minded liberal billionaire concerned about the state of American democracy would be to spend lavishly on state legislative races. While every election cycle matters, the upcoming 2020 census means that the stakes are far higher than usual. All but six states will be electing new lawmakers in 2020. Those lawmakers will play a crucial role in redrawing the state legislative maps and congressional districts that will shape the next ten years of elections (with the exception of a handful of states with independent redistricting commissions).

The last decade of American politics is a case study in why redistricting matters. Republicans took full control of state legislatures in eleven states after the 2010 midterms, including Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Once in power, lawmakers in those states used redistricting to entrench their party in office. State and federal judges spent the next decade tossing out warped maps in each of those states, but the Supreme Court’s ruling last month in Rucho v. Common Cause means that federal courts won’t be able to intervene this time.

Steyer’s candidacy is also symptomatic of a deeper illness for Democrats: a singular obsession with the presidency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an important office. Trump’s Supreme Court picks alone mean that liberals will regret losing the 2016 election for at least the next generation. But it’s not the only elected office in the country where candidates can make a difference. Unless Democrats also hold the House and flip the Senate, any Democratic presidential contender would struggle to enact most of their agenda if elected.

Some members of the party, such as former attorney general, Eric Holder, realize this. He announced in March that he would focus his efforts on the upcoming redistricting fights in 2020 instead of running for the White House. Multiple candidates already in the race, including former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, represent their party’s best chance at retaking the Senate anytime soon. Steyer’s California residency means he can’t play a similar role himself, of course, but he could certainly bankroll those who might.

Other systemic opportunities abound. The Times’ Jamelle Bouie pointed out that a $100 million campaign to bring currently unregistered voters to the polls would have far more impact than Steyer’s presidential bid. Last year, I noted that as conservatives take control of the federal courts, state Supreme Courts would play an increasingly important role in liberal political strategies. Democrats already dropped the ball in a key Wisconsin Supreme Court race in January that shored up that court’s conservative majority. Given the nonpartisan nature of judicial races in some states, a committed donor could make more headway where the Democratic Party can’t or won’t.

Perhaps the most tantalizing opportunity lies in the Sunshine State. After Florida voters approved Amendment 4 to restore the vote to more than 1.4 million people with felony convictions last year, Republican lawmakers enacted new barriers to keep thousands of people with outstanding court fines from casting a ballot. The state American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed a lawsuit last month to challenge the law as an erstwhile poll tax, a cause that Steyer could readily help fund. He could also simply pay off the fees himself. He could even mobilize an army of organizers to reach out to the newly enfranchised voters and bring them to the polls in November.

Nobody can doubt Steyer’s commitment to spending his money on causes he supports. He’s bankrolled multiple environmental ballot initiatives in California over the past decade. Earlier this year, he announced he would spend $40 million on efforts to impeach Trump. If he’s still committed to that goal, then the best way he could achieve it would be to fund a primary challenger of Pelosi. A growing number of congressional Democrats have backed impeachment in recent months, but the House speaker staunchly resists any effort to launch a formal inquiry that could lead to it. Dethroning her wouldn’t give him the press coverage or the debate podium that a presidential bid might offer, but at least it’s a plausible goal.

Those efforts would mirror the kind of tactical, structural changes that conservative donors often seek. The Koch brothers became household names for the extensive influence network they’ve built up over the past few decades. Sheldon Adelson’s multimillion-dollar donations give him a great deal of influence in the Trump White House and among Republican lawmakers in Congress. These aren’t vanity campaigns; they’re serious, patient, well-planned efforts to impose a particular vision upon the republic. When Steyer unveiled his impeachment campaign in January, he also announced he wouldn’t run for president. That he has changed his mind about the latter suggests that he’s found a new political passion: himself.