Steyer spends liberally in blue Calif., but what’s the payoff?

By Anne C. Mulkern | 10/04/2016 01:04 PM EDT

Billionaire environmentalist and Democratic benefactor Tom Steyer is popping up frequently on California television screens four weeks ahead of Election Day. He appears prominently in three political ads, all of which promote voter registration while skewering GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen California, has spent $7.2 million this year on anti-Trump spots, ads that run only in the Golden State. The donations, ads and other Steyer actions are prompting renewed questions about the billionaire’s longer-term goals.

Billionaire environmentalist and Democratic benefactor Tom Steyer is popping up frequently on California television screens four weeks ahead of Election Day.

He appears prominently in three political ads, all of which promote voter registration while skewering GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

One ad opens with Trump saying, "Global warming, a lot of it’s a hoax," as images flash of firefighters battling brush blazes and high waves crashing into buildings. "It’ll get cooler, it’ll get warmer, it’s called weather." The spot then cuts to Steyer, clad in a white shirt and standing in front of green hills. "We need leaders who get it, so that we can move away from coal and oil, to clean energy," he says. "I’m Tom Steyer. If you want to do something about climate change, you can. Please register and vote."


Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen California, has spent $7.2 million this year on that and other anti-Trump spots, ads that run only in the Golden State.

"Donald Trump holds dangerous and extreme views that most Californians find terrifying in a presidential candidate," Steyer said when he launched one of the ads.

Tom Steyer
Tom Steyer. | Photo courtesy of NextGen Climate.

Asked why NextGen is running multiple anti-Trump adds in California — widely seen as a safe bet to give its 55 electoral votes to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — a Steyer aide said that "the goal of the ad series is to mobilize Californians in response to [Trump’s] dangerous views by registering to vote."

Steyer has also doled out $4.3 million this year in California political contributions, to the state Democratic Party, local Democratic groups, several individual campaigns and voter registration efforts and to support California ballot measures.

The donations, ads and other Steyer actions are prompting renewed questions about the billionaire’s longer-term goals.

The layered involvement indicates Steyer could be thinking about running for office in California, several political experts said. There’s been speculation about that since last year, when he partnered with labor groups on the $15 minimum wage and other worker issues, and backed a higher tobacco tax (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2015).

"He clearly cares deeply about the issues that he’s been funding, but he’s just as clearly intrigued by the idea of seeking public office," said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "That doesn’t mean that he’s going to do so, but it seems that he wants to do everything he can to leave that option open for the future."

Steyer appearing in his ads, Schnur said, could mean he wants to make his name and face more familiar to residents.

"He clearly does care about the issues he’s promoting," Schnur said of the ads. "But it’s unlikely he’d be in the ads himself if he wasn’t at least entertaining the option of running for office at some point in the future."

‘Strong coalition’ of voters

Steyer said he’s focused on ensuring voters are registered and show up at polls because that strengthens democracy.

"This November, we need to make sure every voice is heard," Steyer said. "That’s why we’re working with local Democratic groups throughout the state. Increasing grass-roots voter engagement on the local level is the best way to reach unregistered voters, and our goal is to build a strong coalition of Californians who register and vote."

Asked if someday running for office is on Steyer’s radar, an aide said, "Tom has been involved in a number of statewide campaigns over the years. Right now, he is completely focused on 2016, and making the biggest possible impact on the issues."

Steyer told Greenwire last year that he wouldn’t make a decision about his future plans until he sees how the presidential election turns out.

"I’m going to feel pretty darn differently depending on who’s president," Steyer said. "How would you feel about a President Trump? Would it change your trajectory? It would change mine" (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2015). Steyer held a fundraiser for Clinton last year.

A San Francisco-area resident, Steyer made his fortune as a hedge fund manager who profited partly from investments in coal. In 2012, he retired from the firm he co-founded, Farallon Capital Management, and directed that his fortune divest from fossil fuels.

Steyer has given the bulk of his recent California political contributions — $3.6 million — since the state’s June primary. Earlier this year, he gave to local Democratic groups, voter turnout efforts and the California Democratic Party.

Steyer is also forming alliances. NextGen Climate last week announced a partnership with the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network to register and motivate Asian-American voters. On the same day, NextGen trumpeted a tie-in with Planned Parenthood on voter registration. NextGen as well is collaborating with California college campuses to register student voters.

Steyer’s climate group said that it’s "partnering with 67 organizations in over 30 counties in an effort to carry out the largest voter registration drive in state history."

It takes place as he’s spending millions of dollars across the country. He has given $20 million and is working with labor groups on voter outreach in eight states: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina. His NextGen Climate political action committee joined with the AFL-CIO; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; American Federation of Teachers; and National Education Association (Greenwire, May 12). The groups aim to motivate voters on issues that include climate change, public education and racial justice.

Analysts and activists said Steyer is building relationships with key interest groups and is gaining increased visibility with voters, which could lay the groundwork for running for office.

Ads on climate measures, Trump

Steyer’s ad on Trump and climate change is one of many he has funded in California. He launched a $1.2 million campaign this summer to buttress efforts to pass measures including S.B. 32 in the state Legislature. That bill, from state Sen. Fran Pavley (D), which became law, requires that by 2030 the state reduce its carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 emissions levels, the most aggressive target of any state.

Steyer has funded other anti-Trump ads. One plays Trump saying, "when Mexico sends its people they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists," "We’re going to have a deportation force," and "We’re going to build a wall." Steyer then appears and says, "That’s not America. We’re all Californians. I’m Tom Steyer. It’s time to speak out. Please register … and vote." Steyer’s also bankrolled and appeared in Spanish-language ads against Trump.

Another spot shows images of women as Trump makes disparaging comments about some women’s appearances. Steyer again appears at the end, urging registration and voting.

Darry Sragow, an attorney and Democratic strategist, said he believes Steyer is working to elect candidates who support his climate and other environmental goals.

"There are people who do this because they really care about policy and they recognize they have the resources to do it," Sragow said. "Clearly, he has been someone who has been for quite some time committed to creating a healthy environment and energy security. He believes in it, and he has the funds to be able to do something about it.

"When somebody does this, there’s always talk that that person might harbor political ambitions," Sragow added. "There’s certainly plenty of talk in California about what Tom Steyer may or may not see when he looks in the mirror," and whether that’s a future governor, senator or president.

Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, said he believes Steyer’s contributions have more to do with his political ambitions. Steyer gave the Orange County Democratic Party nearly $100,000 this summer on top of $50,000 he gave before the state’s primary.

"It’s no secret that Tom Steyer has his eyes on the [California] governorship," Whitaker said. "His $100,000 to the Orange County Democratic Party is nothing compared to the millions he’s put into the California Democratic Party."

Steyer this year has given the state party $500,000. Since 2010, he’s contributed $1.8 million.

"He is trying to build a base for himself for governor that’s a far left-leaning base," Whitaker said.

Money goes to numerous local Democratic groups

The past two weeks, Steyer donated $4,200 each to the campaigns of nine candidates for state Legislature, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D); former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D), who is running for state Senate; and Henry Stern (D), who is running to replace his former boss Pavley, sponsor of the state’s climate bill, A.B. 32, and its follow-up, S.B. 32.

Earlier this year, Steyer gave $500,000 to Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall’s re-election campaign. He’s running against Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D), who is supported by an oil-funded political action committee and is seen as more moderate on climate measures (Greenwire, May 23).

Last month, he contributed $2.5 million to support Proposition 56, which would increase the tax on cigarettes. He donated $1 million last year to help get that measure on the ballot.

He has also given $100,000 for Proposition 62, which would repeal the state’s death penalty, and $50,000 to buttress Proposition 67, which aims to keep in place a Legislature-passed ban on single-use plastic bags.

Steyer gave the California Democratic Party $240,000 in January and $250,000 in July. He has also helped many local Democratic groups.

In August, he gave $100,000 to the Ventura County Democratic Party and more than $98,000 to the Democratic Party in San Diego. He has also financially helped out Democratic groups in Calaveras, Contra Costa, Fresno, Los Angeles, Marin, Placer, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Sonoma and Tulare counties. Donated funds will allow Democratic groups to recruit, organize and train more volunteers, Steyer said. The giving helps Steyer build relationships with local Democratic leaders, analyst Schnur said.

"He begins to build political relationships in a region of the state outside of his home turf" of the San Francisco Bay Area, Schnur said, referring to the big donations to Ventura, Orange and San Diego clubs. "Regardless of how they spend it, it increases the relationship between party leaders in those counties and Steyer."

In Orange County there’s an interest in getting Democrats elected to school boards, city councils and county board of supervisors posts. Those are the people who can later run for the state Legislature, or for Congress, said Henry Vandermeir, the Orange County Democratic chairman.

"We’re trying to get folks to understand that these races are where you find candidates for higher office," Vandermeir said. "It’s important for us as Democrats to build a candidate base for the future so that we have a good group of candidates to run for higher office. They build their name brand, their voter history, their recognition, their donors. Republicans have been very good at this for many years."

The money Steyer gave to local parties can’t be used to support individual candidates. But the more Democratic voters turn out, the better the chances that Democrats will be elected to those entry-level political posts, Vandermeir said. He noted that the people elected to those jobs often have more impact on residents’ daily lives than higher-ranking officials, as the posts can control local taxes.

Steyer agreed on the importance.

"We believe Californians deserve leaders at every level of government who will fight for their interests," he said. "Every vote counts."

Whitaker was skeptical that the $100,000 Steyer gave to the Orange County Democratic Party would make much impact in electing Democrats to lower-level offices. He said the GOP holds 90 percent of offices in the county, even as voter registrations are trending away from Republican domination. About 40 percent of county voters are part of the GOP, versus 60 percent two decades ago, he said.

"Orange County is just not as left-leaning" as Steyer, Whitaker said. "I don’t think they’re going to have a lot of effect with it."

Schnur with USC, however, said that even if the money Steyer gave helps Democrats increase to 15 percent their elected seats, "that’s still a number of party leaders that are indebted to him for his effort. Regardless of amount of gain, it’s still helpful to him."

Seeking supermajority

The Riverside County Democratic Party received more than $49,000 from Steyer. Republicans had an edge in voter registration until recently, said Howard Katz, the Riverside Democratic chairman. Following a surge in new registrations, there now are 375,000 registered Democrats, 360,000 Republicans and 200,000 listed as "no party preference," he said.

"Until the last 90 to 120 days, we were never a Democratic county," Katz said. "We are now, based in part on the money Tom Steyer has given us."

Although the state is a Democratic-controlled state, there’s reason to want more Democrats elected, he said. The Legislature in 2012 briefly had a Democratic two-thirds supermajority. That vanished by 2014 when Republicans regained seats.

"We need to invest money in California to get our supermajority back," Katz said. Democrats need two more seats in the Assembly and one in the Senate for a supermajority.

Ventura County plans to use the $100,000 from Steyer to register voters in Simi Valley and Oxnard, and to conduct a voter poll on issues. Simi Valley has the highest proportion of registered Republicans compared to Democrats in the county. There are potential Democrats who aren’t registered, said Shawn Terris, chairwoman of the Ventura County Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party in the county, located north of Los Angeles County, said its priorities include Stern, the Democrat running to replace Pavley in the state Senate. It’s also emphasizing the 25th District. Democrats are hoping their challenger, Bryan Caforio, can unseat incumbent Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) (E&E Daily, April 4).

"That congressional seat is the No. 1 targeted seat for Republicans in Congress," Terris said. "It’s certainly high up on our list, as well."