WATERTOWN, Mass. -- Days before a manhunt that shook the nation unfolded in this blue-collar suburb of Boston, Sheila Newhouse navigated its circuitous streets bearing an iPod and a mission to support one of the Capitol's biggest environmental stalwarts.
Newhouse, 44, is one of dozens of canvassers dispatched daily this spring by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in a massive effort to boost the Bay State Senate campaign of Rep. Ed Markey (D), co-author of the comprehensive climate bill that cleared the House in 2009. Markey faces House Democratic colleague Stephen Lynch in an April 30 special Senate primary upended by the attack on the Boston Marathon.
Most of the residents Newhouse encountered were unaware of the race or "not feeling either candidate," she said as she door-knocked with E&E Daily in tow. Newhouse's LCV-crafted script emphasizing Markey's support for clean-energy investment "tends to persuade them" to back him, she added.
Voters raised multiple issues during their brief chats with Newhouse, from Markey's opposition to expanded natural gas exports to his stance on the war in Afghanistan, but no one mentioned the name that has made the Senate primary national news: Tom Steyer.
The hedge fund billionaire turned climate change activist has played a unique dual role in the race, launching ads into the streets and airwaves of Boston that slam Lynch as beholden to "Big Oil" even as he spends significant money to support LCV's more mainstream field campaign on Markey's behalf.
Steyer left the firm, where he had accrued a $1.4 billion net worth at the end of last year, in order to focus on advocacy for "environmental and progressive issues," as his nonprofit group Next Generation puts it.
The NextGen Committee, a Steyer-formed "super PAC" that can accept and spend unlimited funds, followed in mid-March. NextGen has since spent more than $330,000 against Lynch while giving $250,000 to the pro-Markey LCV, according to an E&E Daily analysis of Federal Election Commission reports.
Steyer's contribution amounts to nearly one-third of the $775,000 in pro-Markey independent expenditures that LCV has reported spending so far to the FEC.
Lynch is not alone in comparing Steyer's eye-popping investment in electoral politics to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers whose stakes in oil refining and chemical manufacturing help them bankroll conservative candidates and interest groups. But Steyer spokesman Chris Lehane -- a well-known Democratic strategist -- pointed to a less partisan template for the Californian's political foray.
"Where there's a fairer comparison is [Michael] Bloomberg," Lehane said of the New York City mayor, whose Independence USA super PAC becomes "involved in Democratic and Republican races where there's a clear contrast" in support for the gun control measures he favors.
Steyer's goal is to ensure that "climate is an issue where elected officials will be rewarded and recognized for being leaders," Lehane added, suggesting that the Markey-Lynch battle would be just the beginning of his electoral involvement. "The marker here is when climate is on the ballot in one form or another."
Yet it wasn't a given that climate would be a top-tier issue in the Senate race before Steyer got involved, as a 27-year-old climate activist who helped bring him to Massachusetts explained.
"My interest wasn't to get Markey elected," Better Future Project Executive Director Craig Altemose said in an interview near his office in Cambridge, Mass. "The goal was to elevate climate change and ... the Keystone [XL] pipeline as an issue of paramount importance. That goal has absolutely been accomplished."
Altemose led an effort to seek Steyer's involvement after hearing him speak at a February climate rally in Washington, D.C., that focused on the controversial XL project. He sought assistance in drawing attention to votes Lynch cast in favor of building the $5.3 billion heavy oil pipeline and against an amendment last year that would have killed $554 million in federal funding for fossil-fuel research.
Markey is "great," Altemose said, "but even he has [positions] I don't agree with on climate change."
A mile away from where Altemose spoke, the Steyer-funded LCV campaign continued dispatching Newhouse and other canvassers with a script that called Markey "a true environmental champion."
Are Markey's advantages blurred by Steyer's activity?
That Steyer can play both the inside and outside games in the Senate primary, hosting President Obama at a fundraiser earlier this month that was protested by Keystone XL opponents, strikes some as a distraction.
Media focus on NextGen's anti-Lynch campaign "has buried what's been a substantive effort on the environmental community's part to get behind one of the biggest champions they've had in Congress, and that's Ed Markey," said a veteran environmental campaign strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
LCV canvass director Polly Kyle echoed that sentiment as she likened the Markey effort to her previous involvement in the group's $870,000-plus field campaign to help now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unseat Republican Scott Brown last fall. "The intensity is pretty similar," she said. "They're both important races."
Markey led Lynch, 44 percent to 34 percent, in a survey of likely primary voters released this week by Western New England University. The poll suggested that the 36-year House veteran might not sail smoothly into Secretary of State John Kerry's old Senate seat, as 21 percent of respondents remained undecided and Lynch held a 6-point lead among independents.
The poll, which carried a 4.5-point margin of error, showed Lynch with a bigger lead than Markey over the lesser-known Republican candidates in hypothetical general election matchups. At the head of the GOP field is businessman Gabriel Gomez, who ran the Boston Marathon last week, with former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan close behind.
Markey maintains a more significant cash-on-hand advantage over Lynch heading into the final week of the campaign, with $4.6 million as of April 10. Lynch, who has received some outside assistance from the International Association of Firefighters Union, reported slightly more than $500,000 in his coffers.
"Markey has quite a few advantages in the Democratic primary here," University of Massachusetts, Boston, associate political science professor Maurice Cunningham said in an interview.
"If he wins, I think it'll be those advantages, not Steyer, that did it," Cunningham added. "Steyer is generating a lot of publicity for Tom Steyer and not having much of an impact on the race, probably."
'We've got to demonstrate some political muscle'
The green group's field campaign resumed canvassing over the weekend after suspending activity following the marathon attack, and both the Markey and Lynch campaigns also are expected to resume campaigning on some level this week. The winner of Tuesday's primaries in both parties will face each other in a June 25 special general election to fill the remainder of Kerry's term and must run again in 2014 for a full six-year term.
Even if Steyer doesn't rouse the Massachusetts communities that LCV is canvassing this spring, he already has cemented himself as a national environmental player.
Liberal thinkers floated his name earlier this year as a possible replacement for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and he is also considered a strong contender to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) if she decides to retire in 2019, when she would be 85 (Greenwire, Jan. 9). Altemose pointed to the open-seat Virginia gubernatorial race -- toplined by Republican climate denier Ken Cuccinelli -- and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) re-election as potential opportunities for NextGen to play a role this Election Day.
The veteran environmental campaign strategist said he is "100 percent behind" Steyer's campaign-season foray.
"If we're ever going to pass significant climate change legislation, we've got to demonstrate some political muscle," the strategist added. "The community spends way too much time trying to lobby a bad Congress rather than trying to elect a good Congress."