By: Nicholas Confessore
A billionaire retired investor is forging plans to spend as much as $100 million during the 2014 election, seeking to pressure federal and state officials to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers.
The donor, Tom Steyer, a Democrat who founded one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, burst onto the national political scene during last year’s elections, when he spent $11 million to help elect Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia and millions more intervening in a Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts. Now he is rallying other deep-pocketed donors, seeking to build a war chest that would make his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, among the largest outside groups in the country, similar in scale to the conservative political network overseen by Charles and David Koch.
In early February, Mr. Steyer gathered two dozen of the country’s leading liberal donors and environmental philanthropists to his 1,800-acre ranch in Pescadero, Calif. — which raises prime grass-fed beef — to ask them to join his efforts. People involved in the discussions say Mr. Steyer is seeking to raise $50 million from other donors to match $50 million of his own.
The money would move through Mr. Steyer’s fast-growing, San Francisco-based political apparatus into select 2014 races. Targets include the governor’s race in Florida, where the incumbent, Rick Scott, a first-term Republican, has said he does not believe that science has established that climate change is man-made. Mr. Steyer’s group is also looking at the Senate race in Iowa, in the hope that a win for the Democratic candidate, Representative Bruce Braley, an outspoken proponent of measures to limit climate change, could help shape the 2016 presidential nominating contests.
Mr. Steyer also prospected for potential donors on a recent trip to New York City, where he met with aides to former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has made championing climate change a focus of his post-mayoral political life, but whose own “super PAC” has focused chiefly on gun control.
“Our feeling on 2014 is, we want to do things that are both substantively important and will have legs after that,” Mr. Steyer said in an interview. “We don’t want to go someplace, win and move on.”
Mr. Steyer, 56, accumulated more than $1.5 billion during his days at the hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, before he retired in 2012. Today, he is among the most visible of a new breed of wealthy donors on the left who call themselves “donor-doers,” taking a page from the Kochs, Mr. Bloomberg and others to build and run their own political organizations — outside the two parties and sometimes in tension with them.
But the newest wave of single-issue super PACs — including groups seeking greater regulation of guns and of campaign fund-raising — has drawn criticism even from those who share those priorities.
“A small number of the richest individuals in America are attempting to use their enormous wealth to purchase government decisions to advance their own personal interests,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that favors tighter limits on money in politics. “This is about as far away as we can get from ‘representative government.’ ”
Mr. Steyer poured tens of millions of dollars into a successful 2012 ballot initiative in California that eliminated a loophole in the state’s corporate income tax and dedicated some of the resulting revenue to clean-energy projects. He also has helped finance opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, appearing in a series of self-funded 90-second ads seeking to stop the project.
Those efforts cemented his partnership with Chris Lehane, a California-based Democratic strategist, and heralded the emergence of NextGen Climate, now a 20-person operation encompassing a super PAC, a research organization and a political advocacy nonprofit. The group employs polling, research and social media to find climate-sensitive voters and spends millions of dollars in television advertising to try to persuade them.
It already is among the biggest environmental pressure groups in the country: For example, the League of Conservation Voters, considered the most election-oriented of such groups, reported spending about $15 million on campaign ads in 2012. And while Mr. Steyer has been critical of Democrats who waver on climate issues, he has aimed most of his firepower so far at Republicans.
The new fund-raising push seeks to tap into the booming fortunes of Silicon Valley, where many donors rank climate change as their top political issue. It also signals a shift within the environmental movement, as donors — frustrated that neither Democratic nor Republican officials are willing to prioritize climate change measures — shift their money from philanthropy and education into campaign vehicles designed to win elections.
“There are some people I like and am friends with in the Senate, and if not for Tom’s effort I would probably write a check to support them,” said Wendy Abrams, a Chicago-based philanthropist and donor who raised money for President Obama’s re-election campaign. “But the party is afraid to fight the fight, because they’re afraid to lose more conservative Democratic votes.”
This month, NextGen asked supporters to pick one congressional candidate, from five running this year, for the group to target in its next ads. Four of the five candidates were Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. But the fifth was a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who has close ties to the oil and gas industries and has been an outspoken supporter of the Keystone pipeline.
It is unclear how aggressively his group will move against other Senate Democrats: Asked whether Democratic control of the Senate was necessary to advance his climate agenda, Mr. Steyer said, “As long as we have this partisan divide on energy and climate, it’s got to be important.”
But he is also seeking to upend the partisan split that has come to infuse the climate debate. In their advertising and research, Mr. Steyer and his aides have sought to craft appeals that would reach beyond affluent white liberals on the coasts. Ads in California were tailored to Hispanic voters by emphasizing the negative health impacts of power plant emissions. In the Virginia governor’s race, NextGen sought to show that a Democrat could win with a message emphasizing “green” job creation over one emphasizing threats to the state’s coal industry.
David Topper, a New York private equity investor who attended the meeting at Mr. Steyer’s ranch, said: “You need to be agnostic as to party. If I find someone who has the right position on climate change, do I care if he owns six guns? Not at all.”
Unlike some on the left, Mr. Steyer has embraced the political toolbox that was opened to wealthy donors and other interests in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which made it easier for businesses, unions and rich individuals to pour unlimited money into elections.
“We have a democratic system, there are parts we would want to reform or change, and Citizens United is prominent in that,” Mr. Steyer said. “But we’ve accepted the world as it is.”
Mr. Steyer said there was no fixed budget for his group and declined to confirm his fund-raising target.
“Is it going to take $100 million? I have no idea,” he said, before suggesting that might be a lowball number. “I think that would be a really cheap price to answer the generational challenge of the world.”