With Jay Inslee Out, Tom Steyer Sees Opportunity in Democratic Primaries

Google Jay Inslee, the progressive Washington governor who dropped out of the 2020 presidential race Thursday, and the first hit you'll see is an advertisement for another candidate, one with arguably less name recognition.

"Tom Steyer for President, Outsider Taking on Trump‎" reads the post which was paid for by the Tom Steyer 2020 campaign.

Searching for Jay

Since jumping into the race this July with a pledge to spend $100 million of his own money, California billionaire Tom Steyer has had trouble establishing himself on a national level. The hedge fund owner, who previously poured $80 million into a campaign to impeach President Donald Trump, has yet to participate in any debates, and is polling at about one percent among all Democratic voters.

But that's about to change. In less than two months, Steyer's campaign says they have qualified for the September debate, having received 130,000 unique donations and polled at more than 2 percent in at least three polls. The Democratic National Committee has not yet confirmed that he will be able to participate.

More importantly, he has momentum. The latest Morning Consult poll shows that Steyer is surging in Iowa and other early voting states. Amongst Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada he's polling in fourth place, right behind Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and ahead of California Senator Kamala Harris with a whopping 7 percent of the vote.

The surge is largely because he's dumping buckets of money into advertising in those states. A Vice report says the candidate spent $2.9 million on Facebook ads alone in the past month, which is more than the next three biggest spenders combined. He also spent $8.5 million in television ads in those early voting states. While he may not be known yet on a national scale, Iowans are pretty familiar with his face.

And now with Inslee out of the race, Steyer is hoping to grab the spotlight as the candidate who is doing the most to fight climate change.

"The reality is that climate change is an important issue to voters, but Jay Inslee never caught on with them," Brad Bannon, president of Bannon Communications Research, a political polling and consulting firm, told Newsweek. "He didn't have much of a presence on the debate stage and he didn't have the money to advertise like Steyer does. Tom Steyer has a more compelling personality than Inslee did and so maybe he's doing a better job at tapping into the concern."

Steyer also benefits from being a fresh face in a sea of candidates who have become household names to Democrats over the last nine or so months. The new kid is often the most interesting. Most candidates get a boost in the beginning of their campaigns whether they can sustain the momentum or fall back to the bottom of the pile depends on how they run their campaigns and a bit of fairy dust. "I think it's beginners luck, you have a boost because you come across as different, but it fades," said Bannon.

Steyer, he noted, does have a good idea of where he fits in this race and how to nudge a bigger space for himself.

"The democratic candidates have two races going on," he said. "One is the pragmatic liberals: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. The other is the progressive populist wing: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Steyer falls into the latter category but needs to break through the Warren/Sanders logjam if he wants a real shot."

And he's working on it.

Tom Steyer is Running for President
Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and activist, shakes hands with Trump supporter Jim Tangeman at the Iowa State Fair August 11, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Last week Steyer went after Warren and Sanders, who are both leading in polls nationally behind Biden. When Morning Joe's Willie Geist asked Steyer what differentiates him from other progressives he had a clear answer: They're part of the broken system and I'm an outsider.

"If you look at the other people who are running for this nomination, they're overwhelmingly insiders. The top four people are all senators or former senators who have more than 70 years combined in the Congress and the Senate of the United States," Steyer said.

"So I think there's a big question for all Democratic voters. If job one is to take back the government from corporations, do you think it's going to come from someone who's a grassroots activist and who's been doing it from the outside successfully, or do you think an insider, somebody who's been working inside the beltway for years is actually going to change D.C.?" he asked.

Of course, there's an irony to a San Francisco finance billionaire talking about saving Americans from corporate hunger.