Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer is eyeing the Iowa Senate race as a stage for his bid to vault climate change to the forefront of the 2014 election season -- but getting involved in the Hawkeye State could risk compromising the purity of his parallel campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Steyer is seeking up to $50 million in outside donations to match $50 million of his own spending on climate-friendly candidates through his NextGen political action committee, The New York Times reported today. Iowa's Democratic Senate hopeful, Rep. Bruce Braley, is among the possible beneficiaries of NextGen's ability to accept and distribute unlimited amounts of campaign cash despite taking heat from Republicans for his switch in position on the oil sands crude pipeline that has dominated Steyer's own entry into politics.
Braley touts his support for the cap-and-trade climate bill that withered in the Senate in 2010, but he voted for a GOP measure fast-tracking KXL in the Energy and Commerce Committee only to oppose it during a House floor vote one month later (E&ENews PM, May 23, 2013). The National Republican Senatorial Committee slammed Braley for the turnabout, which his office described as a vote to let the Obama administration's review of the $5.4 billion Canada-to-U.S. pipeline run its course.
"As I have said, I believe that the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline should move forward if it meets applicable environmental and safety requirements and gives proper consideration to the property rights of affected landowners," Braley's office said in a statement last year to the Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa.
Industry and Republican backers of KXL, which would ship upward of 700,000 daily barrels of heavy Canadian fuel to Gulf Coast refineries, are watching closely as Steyer and other wealthy greens weigh the challenge of supporting Democratic Senate candidates who may not back their movement's position on every issue but whose victories would help keep the upper chamber in the hands of President Obama's party.
"Despite spending millions, Tom Steyer is running into a tidal wave of Democratic support for Keystone XL, including former Obama administration officials, leading environmentalists and even MSNBC personalities," Matt Dempsey, spokesman for the industry-backed pro-pipeline group Oil Sands Fact Check, said today via email, referring to the newly minted pipeline advocacy of liberal TV host Ed Schultz.
"So don't expect Steyer to receive a warm reception from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- whose job it is to keep Democrats in the majority -- when they meet with him soon," Dempsey added, noting that DSCC chief Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) drew protests from green groups after he backed KXL in a nonbinding Senate vote last year.
Steyer is set to host a DSCC fundraiser tomorrow at his home in San Francisco, where he plans to brief senators and other attendees on new polls that gauge public opinion on KXL-related questions in states that host the closest 2014 races. The Californian also plans to attend this week’s Democratic Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C., where he will lead a public panel that looks at state-level climate initiatives with the potential to trim U.S. emissions in the absence of federal legislation.
If NextGen does spend on Braley's behalf, as it did last year to help elect Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the choice may well be determined by the candidate’s broader climate record as opposed to his murkier approach to the pipeline. Should Steyer decide to enter the Iowa race, however, Braley’s votes stand to attract more scrutiny from KXL-backing groups such as Dempsey’s.
Former Reliant Energy CEO Mark Jacobs is leading the field of Republicans running for the Iowa Senate seat, according to a poll released last night by Jacobs' campaign.
Five of 10 incumbent Democrats in Senate races currently ranked as tossups or "leaning" toward one party by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report are openly supportive of the controversial oil sands project: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, John Walsh of Montana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska. Four more prominent Democrats seeking open Senate seats have a less-than-clear-cut position on the pipeline, according to public records from their states: Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky, Natalie Tennant of West Virginia, Michelle Nunn of Georgia and Braley.
Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, running to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) next year, is openly critical of increased oil sands crude imports and has voted against GOP plans to push through KXL.
Braley's campaign and personal offices did not respond to requests for comment on his current KXL stance in time for publication. A spokesman for Steyer's NextGen PAC referred a request for comment on Braley's pipeline record to the lawmaker’s office.