'Billionaire boys club': the challengers lining up to face Trump in 2020

David Smith in Washington

The last opponent Trump expects to face in the 2020 election is someone even richer – but Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz have all hinted at running

‘Bloomberg can have a fundraising breakfast with himself,’ said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist.
‘Bloomberg can have a fundraising breakfast with himself,’ said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a billionaire, or claims to be. The last thing he is expecting from the 2020 presidential election is an opponent who is even richer.

But one of the more unusual clusters in the putative Democratic field is the billionaire boys club: former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund investor and activist Tom Steyer and former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz. Estimated combined wealth: $50bn.

If any or all decide to run, they will have a massive spending advantage over conventional politicians and be at liberty to carpet-bomb crucial primary states with advertising. But their deep pockets are also likely to produce a visceral reaction from leftwing activists favouring warriors against economic inequality such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“I don’t think Michael Bloomberg is going to win Democracy for America’s endorsement anytime soon given his connections to Wall Street,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive group. “It’s going to be hard for any of the billionaires given concerns over the influence the wealthy have over our politics.”

A recent straw poll by another liberal advocacy group, MoveOn, was led by Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke on 15.6%, with Sanders and Warren in the top five. Bloomberg ranked eighth on 2.71%, with Steyer in 23rd place on 0.28% and Schultz tied for 32nd and last place on 0.1%.

But these are early days and corporate titans can buy name recognition. Schultz, 65, reportedly plans to travel the country early next year to promote a book entitled From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America. Bloomberg, a businessman who recently re-registered as a Democrat, and Steyer spent heavily in the midterms to help Democrats regain the House of Representatives. Earlier this month they were on the ground in the key states of Iowa and South Carolina. Both have political causes that could make them stand apart from a highly crowded field.

It’s going to be hard for any of the billionaires given concerns over the influence the wealthy have over our politics

Neil Sroka

Bloomberg, 76, vowed to make climate change the defining issue of the Democratic primary campaign, despite potential resistance in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Trump won in 2016 by promising to resurrect the coal industry. Whereas climate change was not even mentioned in the Hillary Clinton v Trump debates in 2016, there is a growing clamour for it to be treated as a global emergency.

Steyer, 61, held a roundtable discussion in Charleston focused on voting rights in the first southern primary state. Like Bloomberg, he has spent millions of dollars promoting awareness of climate change. But he is best known for his dogged effort to bring about Trump’s impeachment in defiance of Democratic leaders who regard the strategy as too risky. Nearly 6.5 million people have signed up to his Need to Impeach website, handing him an email list that could prove invaluable in an election campaign.

Steyer described Trump as “the most corrupt president in American history who is a basic threat to our system and our safety and to the constitution itself”, the Associated Press reported. He said many Democrats and Republicans “don’t think it’s good for their careers to talk about that”.

Tom Steyer speaks at the Netroots Nation annual conference for progressives in New Orleans, Louisiana on 2 August.
Tom Steyer speaks at the Netroots Nation annual conference for progressives in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 2 August. Photograph: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

The events of recent days, in which prosecutors connected Trump to the federal crime of paying hush money to two women during an election campaign, and special counsel Robert Mueller nailed fresh details of his team’s contacts with Russia, have fuelled demands for impeachment and suggested that Steyer could find himself on the right side of history.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank in Palo Alto, California, said: “The 2020 Democratic field is not unlike a game of Monopoly; it’s a question of what property do you own … You have to look at this through the lens of Democratic primary voters: Steyer has beat the others to punch on impeachment.”

Whalen added: “Schultz has been quietly reaching out to policy types. If it’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears, he is the coolest porridge, Steyer is the hottest and Bloomberg is the middle.”

But while the three are more than a match for Trump at business, they cannot claim to be reality TV stars. “You have to ask yourself, while these guys are fabulously wealthy, are they interesting?” Whalen said. “None of them has the intrigue or scandal or celebrity that Trump has. Put Steyer and Schultz and Bloomberg in front of an audience in Iowa and tell me which one connects.

“It has to be Steyer because of his message to hang them high. It’s not Bloomberg talking about what he did for infrastructure in New York. There’s a lot in Bloomberg’s record in New York that won’t please Democratic activists.”

One example is Bloomberg’s policy of having police stop people on the street to search them for guns, an approach that largely affected men of colour. In 2013, a federal district judge ruled that stop-and-frisk had been carried out in an unconstitutional manner, but Bloombergcontinues to insist that stop-and-frisk did not infringe civil rights.

He is socially liberal but fiscally conservative, a free trader with views on banking regulation that are anathema to the left. He told ABC’s The View this week that he thinks most Democrats want a “middle-of-the-road” strategy with a pragmatist in the White House. His support for immigration and gun control are not likely to be enough to win over the progressive wing.

Dave Handy, a New York-based political consultant and organiser, said: “The momentum in the party is circling back towards Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, even folks who want to brand themselves as progressives like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris. It would be hard for a guy like Michael ‘stop-and-frisk’ Bloomberg or Tom Steyer to come out and say: ‘I’m a progressive.’

“If Bloomberg tries to present himself as on the left on healthcare with the soda ban [a failed attempt to limit sales of jumbo sugary drinks], that’s precisely the wrong type: it’s what conservatives like to call the nanny state.”

Wealth is not necessarily disqualifying: former Democratic presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and John F Kennedy hailed from American aristocracy. But amid deep scepticism about the corrosive effects of money in politics, and as more and more candidates say they will reject corporate donations from political action committees, the timing is unfortunate.

None of the billionaires has yet thrown his hat in the ring. But Bloomberg is actively considering it, while it emerged on Wednesday that Steyer is using an anonymous LinkedIn page to advertise vacant “state director” jobs in Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Schultz is keeping a lower profile: he joined Twitter in September 2012 but is yet to tweet.

Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who was an adviser to the Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns, urged: “They could be formidable but they’d better not wait around. They have to start on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire and not assume buying ads will be enough. Their money is a huge advantage, although Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke can raise huge amounts. Bloomberg can have a fundraising breakfast with himself.”