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How Did Tom Steyer Make the Democratic Debate Stage?

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For years, Steyer did things his way, starting NextGen America, his young voter-mobilization group, and Need to Impeach, which, with 8 million people signed up, by far has the largest member list in politics outside of the Republican and Democratic national committees. (The NRA, which held that title for years, tops out at about 5 million.) As Steyer tells it, “There was something wrong in the United States that no one was willing to call out inside the Beltway.” When Democratic leaders complained about him, “they tried to shoot the messenger, as opposed to relate to the message, because they knew the message was true, but no one else was willing to say it.” Steyer says that relates directly to his running as a Washington outsider, as the businessman who this time knows what to do about the economy, and as the citizen who had had enough and turned that into his own successful political groups.

“Part of Tom’s strength in the past had been his willingness to challenge the establishment,” a person who’s worked with him told me, asking for anonymity to be direct. “[This campaign] is a very Tom-focused message, rather than a grassroots-focused message.”

Steyer has for years called Trump “a malignant narcissist,” and a crisis for the country and the Constitution. He regularly mentions his father’s work as a lawyer in the Nuremberg trials and, in doing so, all but calls the president a proto-Hitler. “When you see something deeply wrong at the heart of your society, you’re supposed to fight it every day, before it gets stronger, before it takes over,” he said at the Blue Jamboree. “That’s why I started Need to Impeach: because there are no good Nazis.”

But now impeachment, the cause he spent the past two years working toward, is plunging the country into a political and legal crisis. Climate change, the cause that originally got Steyer involved in politics, is “a crisis point for humankind” for which every wasted week counts, he says.

He’s already signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of his wealth to charity. And he’s said he’ll spend $100 million on a race, more money in a week of TV ads than most of the other candidates scrape by with each quarter.

That $100 million is more than I have in my own bank account, by approximately $100 million. But think of it as a percentage: $100 million to a man worth at least $1.6 billion is the equivalent of $2,925 for someone making the average American annual salary of $46,800. A chunk, but nothing overwhelming, especially for a guy with so much more in the bank and interest coming in every day.

In New Hampshire at the beginning of September, right before he cleared the polling threshold to qualify for tonight’s debate, I asked Steyer whether he’d go past the original budget from his aides that he’d approved at the beginning of the summer. It was a Friday night, and he’d just finished speaking for more than an hour to a few dozen people on a college campus in Durham, New Hampshire. “We guessed what it was going to cost. We know that’s going to change,” he told me then. “So when it changes, we’ll change.”

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