CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Hedge fund billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer quickly demonstrated that money talks and voters listen, with a TV ad blitz in crucial early voting states getting his self-funded campaign noticed and pushing him up in the polls.
The commercials, in which he stands in front of a weathered barn to deliver his people-over-corporations message, made him a familiar face in Iowa before he set foot in the state over the weekend.
“I like his commercials,” said Becky Armstrong, an over-50 Democratic voter who was spending an afternoon at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. “He is just calling a spade a spade, and he takes no prisoners. He is a very successful businessman and he is calling [President] Trump’s bluff.”
Mr. Steyer entered the Democratic race a month ago with a six-figure ad buy across four early voting states. It paid off with rising poll numbers. At 2% and 3% in recent polls, his numbers are rising faster than many of the experienced politicians in the race who remain stuck in the 1% club.
Now he is poised to qualify for the September debate in Houston, according to his campaign.
“If he makes the debate in Houston, the other Democratic presidential candidates and the media need to take Steyer seriously,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “He has plenty of money and he’s created two groups, NextGen and Need to Impeach, that have thousands of grassroots activists he could plug into his presidential race.”
A longtime Democratic activist, Mr. Steyer in 2013 founded the environmental advocacy group NextGen America and in 2017 started the Need to Impeach campaign to promote the impeachment of Mr. Trump.
“But he needs to broaden his appeal beyond the environment and impeachment to become a real player,” Mr. Bannon said. “Democratic primary voters want a nominee who can beat Donald Trump and who can address issues like jobs and gun violence.”
Mr. Steyer made his first swing through Iowa as a candidate over the weekend. He walked onto the stage at the annual Wing Ding Dinner to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend.” He then introduced himself as an “outsider,” a “capitalist” and a “progressive.”
“I am the only one in this race who can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump on the economy and call him out for what he is: He is a fraud and he is a failure,” Mr. Steyer said in the iconic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, which is known for being the last place Buddy Holly performed before dying in a plane crash in February 1959.
His message about removing corporate money from politics, fighting climate change and reforming immigration and health care kept the crowd’s attention.
Boasting that he has been on the winning side of political battles against “big oil and big tobacco,” Mr. Steyer said his White House run is about fighting to fix American democracy. He said part of the fix would be establishing term limits for members of Congress.
“Speaking of term limits: I have six words for you: Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley,” he said, with the hit list of the three long-serving Republican senators sparking applause from attendees as they supped on plates of barbecue.
“Every Democrat has good ideas, but, if you want to get anything done, we have to take back our democracy first,” he said. “Without that, progressive values are empty promises, without that our policies are pipe dreams, and without that none of us are truly free,” he said.
Mr. Steyer pledged to spend $100 million of his fortune on the race. He started with a $7 million advertising campaign that included direct mail, digital ads and more TV spots than any other candidate in the contest.
In the first month, the Steyer campaign spent more than $3.7 million to blanket early-voting Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina with more than 12,000 TV spots, according to data compiled by Open Secrets.
Last week, he hit 3% in an Iowa poll by Monmouth University, marking the third poll in which he crossed the 2% threshold to qualify for the next debate. He needs a fourth qualifying poll to satisfy the requirement.
He previously garnered 2% in an Iowa poll by CBS News/YouGov and 2% in South Carolina in a Monmouth poll.
Mr. Steyer missed the first two debates for the 2020 Democratic hopefuls in which 20 candidates participated.
The Democratic National Committee raised the bar to get into the third debate in Houston, and about half of the two dozen candidates in the race are expected not to qualify.
The candidates now must meet both polling and a donor threshold, instead of either, and each threshold is higher than it had been.
The candidates need at least 2% in four approved polls and at least 130,000 individual donors across 20 states to reach the debate stage, up from 1% in polls or 65,000 donors required for the first two debates.
Nine candidates appear to have made the cut: former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, Sen. A. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
“We feel very confident. We know that we are going to be on that stage in Houston, for sure,” said Alberto Lammers, national spokesman for the Steyer campaign.
The hurdle for the campaign is convincing people to contribute to the billionaire.
Mr. Lammers refused to say how many donors the campaign has at this point. But he said it was “on a very good pace” to reach the goal.
Mr. Steyer has the advantage of an immense database of supporters from NextGen and Need to Impeach.
The hurdle for the Steyer campaign was convincing people to contribute to the billionaire. To close the deal, He focused on $1 donations with a massive digital ad campaign.
He spent $2.6 million on Facebook, nearly $700,000 on Google and more than $200,000 on Twitter, according to Open Secrets.
Mr. Steyer announced Tuesday that he had hit the 130,000 donor benchmark.
He called it “an amazing accomplishment” for his young campaign.
“I’m proud to tell you that more than 130,000 people have invested in our campaign — a campaign run on the idea that, as Americans, we deserve more of a say in what happens to our country than a foreign oligarch or corporation does,” he said in an email to supporters.
• S.A. Miller reported from Washington.
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