Billionaire Tom Steyer May Enter the 2020 Field as Rep. Eric Swalwell Bows Out

Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who toyed with the idea of a Democratic presidential campaign before announcing in January that he would not run, has changed his mind and intends to enter the 2020 contest on Tuesday, according to multiple people who have been told of his plans.

Word of a possible Steyer candidacy was a surprise to the Democratic political world, which has counted on the 62-year-old’s largess to finance super PACs in recent years, and has grown used to his plotting and then discarding his own ambitions for elected office.

The news that Mr. Steyer is again entertaining entering the race himself came as a fellow northern Californian, Representative Eric Swalwell, said that he was ending his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first candidate to do so since the field expanded to historically large proportions. Mr. Swalwell, 38, made the announcement Monday at an afternoon news conference at his campaign headquarters in Dublin, Calif., just three months after he declared his candidacy in April.

“We have to be honest about our own candidacy and viability,” he said. “Today ends our presidential campaign.”

”I have no regrets,” he added later. “I’m excited about what we’ve done.”

Mr. Swalwell had been scheduled to visit New Hampshire and attend several events there on July 3 and 4, but a campaign spokeswoman told The Times last week that he had canceled his plans and instead spent the holiday with family.

Ending his presidential campaign early will allow Mr. Swalwell to shift his attention to seeking a fifth term in the House representing Northern California’s East Bay. He had previously hinted that he would assess his standing in the presidential primary in December — California’s registration deadline to run for Congress — and make a decision about a House run at that time. But during his news conference Monday, he confirmed that he would seek re-election.

Mr. Steyer, on the other hand, has no other clear electoral prospects. Though he has repeatedly toyed with running for high office, including the governorship of California and a Senate seat there, this moment appears to be all about entering the Democratic primary field.

In recent weeks he instructed advisers to conduct polling and other research to gauge his prospects, people briefed on his preparations said. He has designated a longtime aide, Heather Hargreaves, as his campaign manager-in-waiting, and recorded a television ad that could air in the early voting states in the event he becomes a candidate. That launch, associates said, could happen as soon as this week.

Also advising Mr. Steyer is Doug Rubin, a Massachusetts-based strategist who counseled Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, on a potential 2020 campaign before Mr. Patrick announced he would not run. Neither adviser would comment on Mr. Steyer’s plans or their own roles.

There is considerable skepticism across the Democratic Party about Mr. Steyer’s seriousness about the presidential race, and his associates warn not to count him as a candidate until his filing papers are signed and submitted.

Since breaking onto the political scene by backing several high-profile statewide initiatives in California in 2010, Mr. Steyer has engaged in a series of heavily funded, attention-grabbing crusades, most recently spending tens of millions of dollars to promote a campaign demanding President Trump’s impeachment. That effort has flagged over the past few months, frustrating Mr. Steyer, according to people familiar with his thoughts. He has been among the most prolific funders of Democratic groups, though party leaders and strategists have grumbled frequently about his penchant for inserting his own image into television ads.

One ad for Need to Impeach, Mr. Steyer’s organization dedicated to removing Mr. Trump, featured Mr. Steyer standing in Times Square in front of one of his own electronic billboards, discussing his push to impeach the president.

In January, he trekked to Iowa to make a highly promoted political announcement, only to reveal upon arriving that he would not run.

That decision also came at a moment of personal turbulence for Mr. Steyer: In November, he told Vogue that he and his wife of 32 years, Kat Taylor, were “going to try living apart.”

Over the years, Mr. Steyer has rotated through a formidable cast of political consultants and advisers, hiring some of the biggest names in Democratic politics and then discarding them — with varying degrees of cordiality — sometimes in a matter of months. He has lost a number of staffers in recent months to other presidential campaigns, particularly those of Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas. There are significant gaps in the political operation that surrounds him now.

Should he run, Mr. Steyer would likely face a far more searching examination of his record than he has to date, including his background as a hedge fund manager who invested heavily in fossil fuels. Several populist candidates, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have consistently signaled that they would respond aggressively to any billionaire who entered the race and sought to finance a candidacy with a personal fortune.

Mr. Steyer could use that vast personal wealth, estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.6 billion, to fund a television advertising campaign beyond the reach of anyone else in the field. His political groups spent more backing Democratic candidates in 2018 than any other individual except former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York.

Despite those personal funds, Mr. Steyer may struggle to qualify for the Democratic Party’s next round of debates. His name has not been included in qualifying polls and it is highly unlikely he could attract 65,000 donors by July 16, the deadline to do so for the next set of debates July 30 and July 31.

Mr. Swalwell’s brief candidacy illustrated the limits of simply making the debates. Though he qualified for and participated in the first Democratic debates in June, Mr. Swalwell barely registered in the polls, earning 1 percent support just three times.

A member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, Mr. Swalwell had sought to gain a following by focusing his campaign around gun control and gun safety. His campaign released an eight-part plan focused on the issue in June that included a call for a mandatory nationwide buyback program for assault weapons.

On Monday in a statement he said bringing attention to the issue of gun violence had been his priority and said he was proud of his contribution to the Democratic policy agenda.

But neither his buyback plan, nor verbal jabs at former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the June debate, gave him significant traction.

Senator Kamala Harris, of California, called Mr. Swalwell a “great fighter,” adding “we are a stronger nation because of your work to protect our children and our communities from gun violence.”

It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, Mr. Swalwell’s departure or Mr. Steyer’s arrival would have on other candidates in what may still be a crowded 24-person field.

Politico reported last week that several campaign staff members for former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado had left or were departing, and that he had drawn the support of only about 13,000 donors. Mr. Hickenlooper acknowledged the turmoil on Sunday, saying “the vast majority of the problem with the campaign was me.” But he also pledged to stay in the race and become a better candidate, according to The Associated Press.

But Mr. Hickenlooper is far from the only candidate who may now be confronting hard questions about campaign viability. Second quarter fund-raising reports are due to the Federal Election Commission next week, and those disclosures will make it known which candidates are struggling financially.

In the meantime, the Democratic National Committee has toughened debate qualification standards such that more than half the remaining field is likely to be left out of the third debate in September.

With his announcement on Monday, Mr. Swalwell became the first candidate to withdraw from the field since Richard Ojeda, a former state senator in West Virginia, suspended his short-lived campaign in late January. At that time, only a handful of candidates had officially entered the race.

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