Billionaire Tom Steyer put nearly two years and millions of dollars into gathering support for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. And now that impeachment is here, he’s running for president — and the group he founded to spearhead the movement is a skeleton of what it once was.
In October 2017, Steyer launched Need to Impeach, a political group dedicated to pushing for Trump’s removal from office. Through online, television, and on-the-ground campaigns, Need to Impeach gathered a list of more than 8 million supporters, an enviable number for any political cause. The California billionaire positioned himself as the face of the organization, appearing in ads and talking to the press about its mission. And then, in July 2019, Steyer decided to run for president.
Need to Impeach is still around but has scaled back significantly; it currently has just a handful of full-time staffers and otherwise leans on consultants. Former employees say that when Steyer made the decision to run, they were given two options: take a less-than-ideal severance and scramble to find another job, or work for his presidential campaign, where they would be well-rewarded, even though it wasn’t what they originally signed up for.
With an impeachment inquiry is underway in the House, the organization that was once a leading voice on the matter has taken a backseat. Steyer is still donating resources to the group, but he is obviously directing much more of his time, energy, and money to his presidential campaign.
The cynical read would be that Steyer, whose campaign rented and then bought Need to Impeach’s email list, used the group to build a voter file and publicize his name in advance of a presidential bid, and that employees who worked on the impeachment cause were given little choice but to join his campaign.
The more generous read is that the initiative was an honest effort at a cause Steyer believed in, and that in July 2019, the prospect of impeachment seemed pretty dead in the water, so it made sense for him to move on. Need to Impeach remains active — it’s still spending money on digital ads, and it’s starting to run television ads targeting Republican senators, too. As the group says, it’s laid the groundwork, and now other organizations and House Democrats can take the lead.
Still, it’s hard not to note the oddity of the situation: At the very moment Democrats need mass mobilization around impeachment, the guy who sank tons of time, energy, and money into the effort has instead embarked on what will likely be an ill-fated White House run. Though he’s polling well enough in some early states to make the debate stage, he’s averaging 1 percent support nationally in the polls.
“I think that there was a real space for Need to Impeach when it was first made, and I think it was important to have a voice out there talking about these issues. Even though, obviously looking back on this stuff, it just seems like it was a cynical play on his part to build a platform for himself, it wasn’t that from the start,” one former Need to Impeach employee told me. “There’s no denying it had an added benefit for him.”
As public impeachment hearings have kicked off, Need to Impeach merits a victory lap — something it once thought was dead in the water is actually happening.
But now, when the group could play a big role in the next phase of the fight, it’s been hollowed out. I spoke with Need to Impeach, Steyer’s campaign, and six former employees and aides (all of whom agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity) about what happened.
Steyer’s impeachment employees and email list went to his presidential campaign
A couple of weeks before Steyer announced his presidential campaign on July 9, Need to Impeach employees were called into a meeting where they were informed of the decision: Despite his January announcement that he wouldn’t make a White House run, he had changed his mind and decided to go for it after all. Need to Impeach workers weren’t out of a job, but the offer extended to most of them was that if they wanted to stay employed, they’d need to join his 2020 campaign staff instead. Many of them were stunned.
“When he decided to run for president, he didn’t really give much of an option to keep working on impeachment,” one former employee told me. “If you left, the [severance] offer wasn’t great, but they dangled more money at you to stay.”
One employee who agreed to transition to the Steyer campaign said he “started looking for jobs immediately.”
Steyer, who is worth an estimated $1.6 billion, pledged to spend at least $100 million on his presidential campaign. He also said he wouldn’t abandon his outside groups, including Need to Impeach and NextGen America, a nonprofit he formed in 2013 to mobilize young voters, and pledged to spend $50 million on them. Despite that promise, two former Need to Impeach employees described the organization as “gutted.”
“Need to Impeach staffers were strong-armed into going on to the camp campaign and given very few options to do other things,” said one person who was employed at Need to Impeach at the time.
Two of the people I spoke with placed some of the blame for Need to Impeach’s demise and Steyer’s presidential bid on his campaign manager, Heather Hargreaves, who previously served as the executive director of NextGen America. Of course, it is Steyer who ultimately calls the shots, and it became clear in reporting for this story that there was a lot of competition among Steyer’s groups and campaign around who has the candidate’s ear.
In a statement to Vox, Hargreaves said that when Steyer decided to run for office, “severance was provided for any employees that decided not to join the campaign or stay with either entity.”
Both Need to Impeach and Steyer’s campaign declined to comment on the details of the severance packages that were offered.
The campaign confirmed that prior to Steyer’s official announcement, Need to Impeach staff members were informed of the decision and invited to join the campaign, and that 73 of the campaign’s current 300 employees previously worked at Need to Impeach or NextGen. The campaign declined to comment on the breakdown between the two, though the people I spoke with said Need to Impeach was more impacted than NextGen.
Hargreaves said that Steyer’s support for Need to Impeach and NextGen “has not changed since he announced his campaign,” though he has resigned his positions at both groups and no longer oversees their strategies. “Now, thanks to Tom’s faith in the American people, the job to impeach the president is in the hands of Congress,” she added.
Steyer’s campaign also pointed out that the candidate donated $2.7 million to Need to Impeach in October. In the first six months of the year, he put a total of $10.4 million into the organization, according to Federal Election Commission filings. But by comparison, he poured $47.5 million into his presidential campaign during the third quarter of this year. And as for that enviable email list of more than 8 million supporters who signed on to support impeaching Trump? Need to Impeach initially told me they had rented the list to Steyer’s campaign. Steyer’s campaign told me that they had rented the list and then bought it. When I followed up with Need to Impeach, they deferred to the campaign. Steyer’s campaign says they use the Need to Impeach list to get backers to opt into Steyer’s campaign list.
“In retrospect, what we were doing was list-building for his presidential run, because we were focused on list-building far longer than made sense,” one former employee told me.
The employee told me there was optimism within the campaign that people on the Need to Impeach list would convert to the campaign list more easily — and when that wasn’t the case, campaign staff realized they would need to hit it more. “We had just spent a year building a list of people who wanted Trump out of office. What a great email list to have if you can pivot that to a presidential candidate,” the employee said.
But just because 8 million people signed up to impeach Trump doesn’t mean they were interested in Steyer’s presidential bid.
“If he’d stayed focused on leading his impeachment effort, Tom Steyer would be getting credit now as a bold visionary. Instead, people are laughing at the most expensive, worst-run presidential campaign in the current field. The people who talked him into this disaster should be fired,” said a former Steyer aide.
Need to Impeach says it’s focusing on Senate Republicans
Need to Impeach might still be active, but it’s no longer firing on all cylinders.
It claims to have the largest list of supporters in American politics and insists that now that an impeachment inquiry is happening in the House, it has focused its attention on pressuring Senate Republicans, who will ultimately decide whether to convict Trump and remove him from office. In October, it launched a $3.1 million TV ad campaign targeting vulnerable Republican senators in Arizona, Iowa, Maine, and Colorado. (It has since launched a second round of ads there as well.) It’s also sending a mobile billboard around Washington, DC, and plans to take out ads targeting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
“If conviction is possible, believe me, we’re planning on going all in,” Nathaly Arriola, Need to Impeach’s executive director, said.
But as long as Steyer is running for president, “all in” on impeachment isn’t what it once was. NextGen America recently told HuffPost it is prepared to spend $45 million to increase voter turnout in 2020.
According to data from political communications agency Bully Pulpit Interactive, Need to Impeach’s spend on Facebook and Google ads peaked in March, the same month that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) came out against impeachment, despite pressure from many Democrats. March is also the month in which special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report to Attorney General Bill Barr, though the redacted version wouldn’t be made public until April.
The group’s ad spending has slowed ever since, while Steyer’s has skyrocketed. In total, Need to Impeach has spent $4 million on Facebook and Google ads since the beginning of the year, while Steyer’s campaign has spent $11.5 million on Facebook and Google ads since the launch of his campaign in July. Many of Steyer’s digital-ad dollars are still going toward impeachment, but not most. Moreover, when people click the ads, they’re directed to his campaign website, not information about the broader movement for impeachment.
“We made a decision with less resources to stop acquiring new names,” said Need to Impeach lead strategist Kevin Mack, essentially making the case that the group already has what it needs to model out the rest of the voter base. But, of course, they can no longer walk down the hall to Steyer’s office to ask him to cut a quick check for a new initiative. “Obviously, while Tom was actively involved in the campaign, he was going to spend more money than while he’s running for president,” Mack said.
In a separate statement to Vox, Mack said Steyer “should get enormous credit for fighting this fight” on impeachment and that he continues to fund the organization.
Steyer spent millions getting himself on the debate stage and is now sitting out on a lot of impeachment
It’s a moment when Democrats need all hands on deck for impeachment, and Steyer, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors and a longtime champion of impeachment, isn’t there.
Alberto Lammers, a spokesman for Steyer’s campaign, told me that although impeachment is not part of Steyer’s presidential platform, “he hasn’t abandoned the movement,” pointing to Steyer’s donation from October. “He’s going to do what it takes to make sure that Need to Impeach has the funds that they need,” he said.
Need to Impeach says it feels like it’s laid a lot of the groundwork for other groups — and, of course, Democrats in Congress — to take the lead. Arriola told me that when she first started talking to lawmakers in the group’s early days, nobody wanted to “say the i-word.” That has changed.
To be sure, it was impossible for Steyer or anyone to have foreseen in July 2019, when the Mueller report had come out and impeachment still wasn’t moving in Congress, that we were just a couple of months away from a whistleblower report on Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president that would change sentiment on impeachment entirely. And given the anti-billionaire sentiment pulsing through the Democratic Party right now, Steyer being too out front on impeachment might not help.
Your guide to the Donald Trump impeachment saga
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But he could play a role in the background, or could have redirected the group’s purpose over the summer — Need to Impeach briefly did an identity shift and became Need to Vote ahead of the 2018 midterms. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Steyer put nearly $74 million toward the midterms, behind only Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Now, he’s reportedly offering Iowa politicians campaign contributions in exchange for their endorsements instead of focusing on the cause he purported to be all-in on for two years.
The former Need to Impeach employees I spoke with said they didn’t doubt Steyer’s belief that Trump should be impeached, but they say the timing of everything is, at the very least, unfortunate, and that Steyer’s resources would be better directed elsewhere.
“As billionaires go, I think he’s a good one,” one former employee said. “But what are we actually fighting against if we’re trying to get another person whose only experience is being rich elected as president?”