Tom Steyer: Party Animal

$5 million donation suggests Steyer is a Democrat before he’s an environmentalist

Tom Steyer / AP
June 13, 2014

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer poured another $7.1 million into his political group during the second quarter of this year, new documents show, the bulk of which was then passed on to a leading Democratic group.

The documents show that Steyer is looking to influence more U.S. Senate races than those specifically targeted by his group, and that he is less ideologically constrained to environmentalist candidates than previously believed.

On April 21, Steyer wrote NextGen Climate Action, his independent expenditure committee, a $5 million check specifically "earmarked for Senate Majority PAC," a Democratic group with deep ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

Nine days later, Federal Election Commission records show, NextGen passed along a "conduit contribution" of the same sum to Senate Majority PAC.

The contribution dwarfed independent expenditures by NextGen itself during the first six months of the year. The FEC records list less than $150,000 in such expenditures through the end of May.

Those expenditures bought digital advertising opposing Republican Senate candidates in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire, the four races that Steyer announced as NextGen targets in May.

Though NextGen is confining its work on U.S. Senate races to those four states, its support for Senate Majority PAC, which is involved in nearly every competitive Senate race around the country, shows that Steyer plans to influence elections beyond those specifically designated as NextGen targets.

In addition to NextGen’s target states, Senate Majority PAC has hit Republicans candidates or incumbents, directly or through front groups, in Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado, and Kentucky.

As Steyer signaled more involvement in Senate races earlier this year, Democrats worried that his strident environmentalist views could cost Democrats their majority.

Steyer’s group even suggested that it might go on offense against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) due to her support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which Steyer vehemently opposes.

"I say over and over, 'Lord protect me from my friends so I can focus on my enemies,’" one Democratic strategist supporting Landrieu told National Journal. "This is an apparent case of that."

Steyer’s support for Senate Majority PAC suggests that those fears were unfounded.

Steyer is indirectly supporting Landrieu, as well as candidates such as Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is an outspoken supporter of her state’s coal industry, through his $5 million contribution to Senate Majority PAC.

"I don't think his underlying feelings have changed. But I think he realizes certain things are just not possible," one source familiar with Steyer’s political activity told Reuters.

Steyer may have recognized the value of a Democratic Senate majority to his environmentalist goals. But that now entails supporting Democrats who do not always share those goals.