Tom Steyer hits the ground running as new Democrat in presidential race

The newest Democrat to enter the presidential primary race, California billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer launched a national two-week television ad campaign Wednesday, with particular focus on the first four Democratic primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

His videos tout how Steyer, 62, built his fortune and then left his business to become a philanthropist and political activist. He gained national attention for founding his NextGen America youth voting group and his Need to Impeach effort.

"He has a very big heart and his heart is in the right place," said San Francisco Democratic activist Steve Rapport who is a member of Indivisible SF and also collaborated on impeachment rallies with Steyer.

"Doing the Need to Impeach," said Rapport, "He had no need to do that, no reasons to do that, other than he believes in the Constitution. And I really admire him for doing that. He got 8 million people to sign on to the impeachment pledge." 

Rapport says he trusts Steyer, but doesn't feel the Democratic Party should be led by a billionaire who built his fortune running a private equity firm, regardless of how progressive Steyer's politics are.

"He basically has a lot of the same policies as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and in fact as many of the other candidates, so he's not really a standout or filling a gap," said Rapport.

"I do think he faces this uphill battle of what's his niche really going to be?" said Eric Schickler, Co-Director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

Schickler says Steyer faces a challenge being relatively unknown in a race against well-established Democrats.

Steyer graduated from Yale University and earned his MBA in 1983 at Stanford University. He went to work for Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and started his own San Francisco-based investment fund Farallon Capital in 1986. He left the business in 2012 to pursue philanthropic projects.

"While there is an appetite for outsider candidates in politics, I think among the Democratic voters, the appetite for a billionaire outsider candidate might be less," said Schickler, "I think right now, Democrats are really hoping to frame themselves and their campaign as on behalf of regular voters,  diverse, changing America and that's maybe not what Steyer's profile fits quite as well."

Schickler says even if Steyer doesn't qualify for the Democratic debate, he can have a big impact on shaping the discussion.

"Even if he just stays in the race for 6 months and drives some attention to these issues," said Schickler, "It can force other candidates to be a little bit more assertive and specific on the issue such as climate change and in that way he could help drive the conversation."

Steyer's campaign staff say they plan to spend about $1.4 million on this initial ad campaign, out of the $100 million Steyer says he intends to spend on his White House run. 

Steyer is expected to campaign in South Carolina and return to the Bay Area next week.