At the historic Sunset Station building just east of downtown San Antonio Wednesday night, a couple hundred people gathered to see Tom Steyer in a town hall setting.
Some had gotten texts; others invites on Facebook. Some had no clue who this Tom Steyer guy was; others a faint idea. Most of them had signed on to his Need to Impeach campaign, which he launched in October to build public support for President Trump’s impeachment. He says it has since garnered about 5.5 million signatures and is adding 10,000 more each day.
“We started this campaign because we felt [Trump] is a lawless guy who’s opposed to our democracy and doesn’t care about the safety of the American people or the republic. That’s what we think,” Steyer told the Observer. He points to what he sees as Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause (profiting off the presidency) as well as the president’s collusion with Russia and resulting obstruction of justice.
A hedge-fund billionaire and Democratic mega-donor from California, Steyer is the benefactor of the youth voter mobilization project NextGen America, a super PAC that operates in 11 states. He’s developed a reputation for his willingness to spend tens of millions on liberal politics.
So far, Steyer has pumped more than $40 million into Need to Impeach, running ads on TV (including Fox News) and building up a staff of 40 people.
The San Antonio event came days after Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which Trump sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence officials’ claims that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and was planning to do the same in 2018.
Steyer wasn’t surprised. “When we see a clear example on TV, that doesn’t really change our mind. … This isn’t a fluke. This isn’t a surprise. This is what he is,” he said.
Trump’s performance at the summit press conference in Helsinki felt like a turning point for politicians and voters alike. U.S. Senate candidate and El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke had previously flirted with calling for Trump’s impeachment, but came out fully in support after Trump’s comments.
“Standing onstage in another country with the leader of another country who wants to and has sought to undermine this country, and to side with him over the United States — if I were asked to vote on this, I would vote to impeach the president,” O’Rourke said. “Impeachment, much like an indictment, shows that there is enough there for the case to proceed and at this point there is certainly enough there for the case to proceed.”
O’Rourke is running in one of the most high-profile Senate contests in the country, and one that is already seen as an incredibly steep climb for a Democrat to win. The clear call for impeachment doubles down on making Trump the centerpiece of the race, and further contrasts O’Rourke with Ted Cruz, who called his challenger’s impeachment support “so radical and reckless that he is unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate.”
From the start of Steyer’s campaign, many have considered the effort a mere political vanity affair. Meanwhile Democratic Party leaders were resistant to focus on impeachment, especially a costly effort. “I wish he would spend the money pointing out the horror show that the tax bill is,” fellow Californian and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently said of Steyer.
Steyer rejects those critiques, calling his project the “largest grassroots organization in the country” and one that has the potential to activate a broad swath of new voters.
He says that the impeachment campaign will reach millennial voters who have grown disillusioned with the two political parties. However, that didn’t seem to be the case in San Antonio, which was one of 30 town hall events around the country. The vast majority of the crowd was older and firmly within the Democratic base.
Steyer has previously toyed with bringing his NextGen super PAC operation — which has $30 million in funding so far this cycle — into Texas. O’Rourke, whose campaign is centered on his refusal to take PAC money, doesn’t want Steyer’s help. “Thanks, but no thanks,” he said back in April. “That’s my response. [I] don’t want it. That’s not how we’re doing this.”
O’Rourke has managed to outraise Cruz so far, bringing in $10.4 million in the most recent fundraising quarter. But Cruz will likely have a bevy of super PAC support come to his aid closer to the election.
And while O’Rourke ultimately can’t stop Steyer from spending money in the state, Steyer was noncommittal when asked if he plans to invest here.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Coming to Texas will be a good chance for me to think about it.
“To do grassroots, we’ve been in a lot of these states for years,” he added. “You’ve got to hire people. You’ve got to train them and then deploy them. And monitor it. it’s not like we can go shoot TV ads and put them on the air in Austin next week. It’s an organizational challenge.”