Election 2020

Billionaire Tom Steyer Qualifies for Hypothetical January Debate

Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

It seems like Bernie Sanders (S-USSR) may get to rail at at least one billionaire in person next Tuesday, unless Nancy Pelosi finally agrees to send her articles of impeachment over to the Senate before then. Tom Steyer, the environmental activist billionaire who made his money investing in coal, just qualified for the next Democratic debate — so long as it actually happens.

Steyer, one of two billionaires who entered the presidential race rather late but has made up for it by spending boatloads of money, cleared the high bar for the January 14 debate in Iowa with high showings in two Fox News polls for Nevada and South Carolina, Politico reported.

In order to qualify for the debate, candidates need to gather 225,000 unique donors and reach 5 percent in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee, or 7 percent in two early state polls.

In the new Fox News poll of Nevada, former Vice President Joe Biden leads with 23 percent, followed closely by Sanders at 17 percent. Steyer tied with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-1/1024th of a plan) at 12 percent. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Church of Social Justice) takes fifth with 6 percent, followed by businessman Andrew Yang at 4 percent.

In the South Carolina poll, Biden leads with 36 percent, with Steyer in second with 15 percent. Sanders (14 percent), Warren (10 percent), and Buttigieg (4 percent) fell behind the billionaire latecomer.

Poll numbers like this did not come cheap for Steyer. He spent $11.2 million in South Carolina on TV and direct mail in six months. He is far outspending the rest of the field by several million dollars in the Palmetto State, including Biden, who has spent $800,000 in ads there so far but has promised to spend $6 million closer to the primary. Steyer spent another $10.3 million in television and radio ads in Nevada — with another $270,000 in ads already booked for the Silver State. Warren, the second-highest spender in Nevada, has only $1.2 million aired or booked through February.

Steyer’s most recent TV ad, airing in South Carolina and Nevada markets, features black and Hispanic voters saying the billionaire can beat Trump. One Nevada ad is entirely in Spanish.

Steyer’s qualifying for the debate is big news. Ironically, however, the January debate may not happen at all. If Pelosi finally sends the articles of impeachment — which passed on December 18 — over to the Senate before Tuesday, the Senate may go into trial mode, tying up Sanders, Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, who have all qualified for the debate (along with Biden and Buttigieg). DNC Chair Tom Perez said the debate will be postponed if a trial begins.

Neither Steyer nor the other latecomer billionaire, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D-tax the poor for their own good), has much of a chance in the two early states of Iowa (February 3) and New Hampshire (February 11). Yet Steyer’s strength in Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29) might make him a serious contender. Bloomberg is shooting for a Super Tuesday surprise on March 3.

The two billionaires have thrown a wrench into the race, and it remains to be seen just how effective their late entries will be. They seem to have jumped in because Biden, the longtime frontrunner in national polls, appears a weak candidate. The former vice president’s age, his constant gaffes, and the recent reminders of the Burisma Ukraine scandal involving his son seem to tarnish his chances in the general election against Trump.

Democratic primary likely voters have consistently told pollsters they want a candidate who can beat Trump, and Biden’s experience — and the mistaken perception that he is a moderate — makes him appear the safest bet. Steyer and Bloomberg are aiming to take his votes if he should falter.

This primary season will test the influence of big money ads in politics like few campaigns before — and if 2016 is any indication, both Steyer and Bloomberg will ultimately flop.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.