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Billionaire Tom Steyer will debate for the first time Tuesday. Did he buy his spot on stage?

Tom Steyer has spent nearly $20 million on TV ads. It's helped him qualify for the next two debate stages and netted him some critics who say he bought his spot.

Democratic presidential candidate and businessman Tom Steyer waits to speak at the Des Moines Register Soapbox during a visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa in August. Tax records released by Steyer show he made well over a billion dollars over the last decade.
Democratic presidential candidate and businessman Tom Steyer waits to speak at the Des Moines Register Soapbox during a visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa in August. Tax records released by Steyer show he made well over a billion dollars over the last decade.Read moreCharlie Neibergall / AP

Tom Steyer dropped by a South Philadelphia barbershop last month for a trim and some casual conversation. He spent about an hour and a half chatting about gun control, criminal justice reform, and impeachment with the guys.

“To be honest with you … I was impressed at how long he stayed,” said Anton Moore, a local ward leader who helped arrange the visit. “Most people like that, they’ll stay 30 minutes, take a photo op, and get out of there. He seemed like he really cared."

Steyer, 62, has perhaps more time for a leisurely visit than his competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination. A billionaire philanthropist who will make his first debate appearance Tuesday night, he said he’ll spend up to $100 million on his bid. As a result, Steyer doesn’t have to organize a schedule around fund-raisers. He doesn’t have to shake every hand in Iowa or New Hampshire, given the huge TV ad buy he has piping his name and message into most homes.

Steyer has spent an estimated $19 million on TV ads. The next-closest Democrat was Kirsten Gillibrand, who spent $1.1 million, according to an analysis by the FiveThirtyEight website. More than 70% of all ads from Democrats running for president on TV right now were purchased by his campaign. His digital buys are also high — at least $10 million since he entered the race in July.

Steyer’s ascent to his first debate has drawn criticism from some competitors who say it proves the Democratic National Committee’s qualifying requirements are too easily bought.

“His ability to spend millions of his personal wealth has helped him gain in the polls like no one else,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said in an email seeking donations.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who didn’t make the debate, said the rules "have allowed a billionaire to bankroll his way onto the debate stage, while governors and senators with decades of public service experience have been forced out of the race.”

To qualify for the October debate, a candidate needed to get at least 2% in four national or early state polls. Steyer’s ads have boosted his name recognition, and he received 8% in a recent poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers. A candidate also has to get 130,000 unique donors across at least 20 states to show grassroots appeal. (To qualify for November, which Steyer did, candidates had to get 4% in the polls and 165,000 donors).

That’s arguably harder to buy. But when campaigns can directly target voters by inundating them with e-mails, texts, and Facebook ads, it’s possible.

Steyer, in an interview this week, said the people who give him money are responding to his message. “They believe what I’m saying. That’s the only reason. If I had nothing to say — then they wouldn’t be responding, but they actually are, and that’s a reflection of the message.”

When the DNC created the new rules for the Democratic debates, the idea was to get big money out of campaigns and reward the kind of grassroots support that turned out for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016.

“Paying millions of dollars to get there is not the same thing as inspiring a movement,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a progressive consultant. “You can literally spend $3 for every dollar you get donated." She thinks the DNC “overcorrected” in an attempt to involve more grassroots support and created an unintended loophole.

As a billionaire, it’s not exactly easy for Steyer to ask people to give, and his message could be seen as a bit of a contradiction: He is a billionaire trying to get money out of politics who has for the last decade been one of the biggest contributors to politicians. But Steyer says that makes him best suited to rid politics of corporate money. He has a far-left pitch for big structural change similar to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but with an outsider’s perspective.

And at least 130,000 people agreed enough to send him at least a buck.

Steyer sees his campaign as an extension of his philanthropy, which has largely been about advancing issues outside of government. He’s funded grassroots opposition to oil, gas, and utility companies and organized and donated millions to environmental causes.

“I’m trying to do exactly what I’ve been doing before — organize people at the grassroots level to take on unchecked corporate power,” he said.

Steyer, a hedge-fund founder whose fortune is estimated at $1.6 billion, according to Forbes, says he supports a wealth tax. In 2014, he spent about $67 million in midterm races, which he upped to $87 million to support Democrats running for office in 2016.

He founded NextGen America, an effort to mobilize young liberal Democrats, especially around climate change. He founded Need to Impeach back in 2017, to advocate for impeaching President Donald Trump.

Katz questioned whether Steyer’s efforts could be better spent, though, focusing on expanding support for the House’s newly launched impeachment inquiry of Trump, or helping other Democrats.

“Ten million dollars could win back a statehouse," Katz said.

“It’s not an either/or,” said Steyer, who continues to fund both NextGen and Need to Impeach.

Steyer may be low in the polls now, but he’s likely to stick around to see the field thin.

“He’ll have enough money to compete on Super Tuesday and he’ll be one of five or six candidates left, instead of a dozen,” said strategist Neil Oxman. “That’s his play. He can afford to wait to introduce himself.”

Moore, the South Philly ward leader, is eager to see a winnowing. He liked what Steyer had to say but has found it difficult to get a fix on any one candidate with so many in the race, and so few who seem focused on issues that matter to his community, like poverty.

“You’ve got a lot of people up there talking for a minute each about health care," Moore said. "I want to see who is speaking to the heart of the people.”