AP Interview: Steyer’s fortune fuels underdog 2020 campaign

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer files to be placed on the New Hampshire primary ballot at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Concord, N.H. Watching, middle, is Steyer's wife, Kat Taylor, and, far left, is Secretary of State Bill Gardner. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

BLUFFTON, SCTom Steyer says it’s “not possible” to buy the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yet the elderly crowd gathered in the back of the Southern Barrell Brewing Company in this town near the South Carolina coast sure did appreciate the waitresses offering free iced tea and lemonade as they waited for the wealthy White House hopeful to take the stage. The fried tomatoes and mozzarella sticks were a hit, too.

“That’s nice of Tom to pick up the drinks,” said Terry Temple, a 73-year-old independent who said she doesn’t hold Steyer’s wealth against him. “He worked hard for what he’s got.”

Welcome to campaigning with the billionaire who goes by “Tom,” a hedge fund manager-turned-liberal activist who’s digging deep into his personal fortune in hopes of creating space in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary. He’s doing so as wealth itself is under attack as never before in presidential politics, in an election in which several candidates — Steyer included — have rallied behind a wealth tax and openly questioned whether billionaires should exist at all.

For now, they do.

And beyond free food and drinks, Steyer has used his wealth to rapidly assemble a sprawling staff across several states that now exceeds 300. He has paid operatives on the ground in at least five Super Tuesday states. And he’s blanketing the airwaves with an advertising campaign that’s dwarfing his opponents’ best efforts.

He entered the race months after most of his competitors, but Steyer has already spent $4 million more on internet ads than any other Democrat. In Iowa alone, he has spent twice as much on television advertising as his next closest rival, Pete Buttigieg, and more than all the others next on the list combined, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

In an AP interview, Steyer said he’s prepared to spend more than the $100 million he initially pledged toward his presidential ambitions if necessary. Separately, he’s said he’s still committed to giving at least an additional $50 million this election cycle to outside groups he helped create, including one devoted to President Donald Trump’s impeachment.