Steyer says his giving philosophy isn't about just donating money as much as it is about becoming an actual participant in the work. For instance, he sometimes goes door-to-door with candidates or tables on college campuses. When we spoke, he had just come back from participating in a round- table discussion with a group of voters in Modesto, California, where he asked them about the issues that were driving them to participate or otherwise.
”To me, getting that feedback real time from human beings is super important,” he says. “Who you see and who you can imagine yourself being and who is a full human being to you, really pushes what you do—as opposed to, statistically, I should care about this.”
He also generally doesn’t believe in throwing money at campaign ads, in part, because it builds zero infrastructure going forward.
“When I think about success, I think about it in two ways: What was the result that year, and did you build something that will give you capability on Jan. 1 of next year,” Steyer explains, “and one of the things that doesn't do that is TV ad campaigns.”
In Virginia's elections last year, his organization invested a total of $3.3 million, which included putting $1.5 million into a coordinated GOTV program run by NextGen along with local labor and progressive groups to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. Most news outlets reported that as an investment in Ralph Northam's campaign, but Steyer says his organization worked in partnership with groups on the ground rather than simply handing over the money.
"Actually, we did all the grassroots organizing for people under the age of 40 in Virginia—I'm not sure we gave them a nickel," he says of Northam's campaign.
Steyer's as jazzed as anyone about the Democratic sweep in the Commonwealth last year as he rattles off numbers about the youth vote, in particular: From 2013 to 2017, millennial turnout was up 8 points to 34 percent, and the spread in terms of who they voted for went from a 5-point advantage for Democrats in the 2013 governor's race (45-40) to a 39-point Democratic advantage in 2017 (69-30).
"That's gotta be considered pretty damn close to a success," he says, holding up Virginia as a perfect example of what NextGen is trying to accomplish—partnering with local groups on issues that they're both committed and passionate about in order to increase both turnout and the spread in support between Democrats and Republicans.
Yet even as Steyer was pouring money into Virginia, Washington Democrats still weren’t feeling the love. His announcement of a $1 million investment toward helping immigrant groups mobilize voters drew some telling inside-the-Beltway snark from a reporter who had likely seen more than a few Steyer-inspired eye rolls.
Meanwhile, leaders at the immigration group America's Voice, which partnered with NextGen on two immigration-focused pre-election polls in Virginia, said Steyer's focus on voters of color was not only somewhat uncommon among liberal donors, but also very welcome.
"Let’s be real. Most Democratic candidates and most Democratic campaigns are not very good at talking to African American, Latino, Asian-American and millennial voters," notes Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. "Fortunately, progressive donors like Tom Steyer get it and are investing heavily in efforts to mobilize those groups. In Virginia, it made a huge difference."
According to exit polls, voters of color accounted for 33 percent of Virginia voters overall in 2017—not even a lick of drop off from the 33 percent turn out the previous year for the presidential and a solid 5 percent more than showed up in the 2013 gubernatorial. The polls NextGen funded also helped demonstrate two key points: a marked increase in awareness among voters of color about the candidates’ stances on immigration in the final weeks of the campaign due to the door-knocking push; and how the racist, anti-immigrant messaging from Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie moved voters of all races in the direction of Democrats.
Steyer probably didn’t win any more friends in Washington early this year when he announced he wouldn’t give any money to the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), following the government shutdown debacle in January over Dreamers. But it wasn’t the shutdown that bothered him, it was the cave that followed.
“We believe that immigration writ large and the status of 11 million undocumented people is probably the biggest human rights issue in the U.S.,” he explains. “This is just a straight-up justice issue, and how you treat people.”
The big mistake Washington Democrats made, in his eyes, was saying they were going to stand firm and then backing down within days due to stalled negotiations over extending legal protections for some 700,000 DACA recipients.
“We don't want to compromise on the dignity and rights of Americans,” Steyer says, “if you're going to make a principled stand, make a principled stand.”
To Steyer, one of the great triumphs of American history is the move from the very restricted and bigoted founding of our nation to an increasing recognition of the full humanity of all Americans. The Dreamer issue to him was both fundamental and represented a very rare moment for Democrats—as the minority party in Washington—to actually effect a policy outcome.
“You get very few chances to really make a difference,” he says of a minority party in Washington, “that was one of the few chances.”
For Steyer, it all goes back to the same question: What are your values? And just like the argument he made for his impeach Trump initiative, he’s convinced Americans crave a crystal-clear answer to that question at this incredibly precarious political moment.
“It's very hard for me to believe the American people do not like representatives who stand up for them, their democracy, their safety and their rights,” he says. He and his organization view the coming election as an existential question of right and wrong and he’s placing his bets on making the distinction between Trump’s GOP and Democrats as distinct as possible. All the usual worries of political operatives about how one issue or another will play on the margins in any given election are irrelevant here. And besides, the idea of playing it safe in order to preserve the status quo at any given moment is a fool’s errand in Trump’s Washington. No one should be playing politics as usual right now—least of all the Democrats.
“There is a stark right and wrong choice to be made and we want it as stark as possible,” Steyer says. “Why do you want to cover that up?”
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