GOP “science deniers” running for re-election this year are facing a $100 million bare-knuckles political campaign that has targeted seven of the Grand Old Party’s more virulent science deniers for political extinction. The campaign will be spearheaded by NextGen Climate, a super pac founded by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, 56, who stepped down from his role as senior managing partner at Farallon Capital Management, a $20 billion hedge fund, to devote himself to political advocacy on behalf of alternative energy systems and the environment. Steyer has pledged $50 million to his super pac, which will raise an additional $50 million from other sources. The funds will be used in an attempt to “tip the needle” against GOP climate change deniers by underwriting the campaigns of their climate conscious Democratic opponents.
This campaign follows a successful “test run” in which Steyer’s super pac underwrote “climate change acceptors” in three 2013 campaigns against a slate of GOP science deniers, including the Virginia gubernatorial campaign in which Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated incumbent Republican science denier Kenneth T. Cuccinelli. Steyer spent $11 million of his own money to tip the balance in McAuliffe’s favor, even though the Democratic party candidate was never as strong in his climate change position as Cuccinelli was in his opposition to climate change regulations. The hedge fund billionaire counted on his contributions to attract even more money to McAuliffe’s campaign, resulting in a proof of concept demonstrating that even mildly climate conscious candidates can do well against GOP science deniers.
This time around, however, in 2014, Steyer will be facing off against the Koch brothers, who have poured very large sums of money into political campaigns against incumbents and candidates who have climbed aboard the climate change bandwagon. They are also smarting from the drubbing that NextGen Climate gave their candidate, Cuccinelli, in the Virginia gubernatorial contest.
This time, instead of going head to head in three campaigns, Steyer is going up against the Koches in seven different contests. In a dollar for dollar confrontation between Steyer and the Koch brothers, Steyer is a long-odds underdog. His $1.6 billion personal fortune is chickenfeed compared to the personal wealth of the Koches, whose combined net worth was reported on April 16, 2014 at more than $100 billion. His targeted investment strategy, reminiscent of the manner in which he ran his hedge fund, may help turn the tide in seven crucial 2014 races by focusing his funding efforts where they may do the most good.
Steyer’s injections of financial resources into campaigns of climate change believers will help the candidates to counter specific Republican assertions that climate change is “voodoo science.” Voters with long memories will recall George Bush’s 1980 comment that Ronald Reagan’s “supply side” trickle down theories were nothing more than “voodoo economics.” Reagan won that argument when he defeated Bush in the primaries, but the argument continues as climate change and supply side economics continue to reflect diametrically opposed economic visions.
This year, Steyer will focus his efforts on four Senate races and three gubernatorial contests. In the Senate, Steyer will be throwing his support behind Colorado Senator Mark Udall, one of the Congressional strongest supporters of climate change legislation, against Cory Gardner, a congressman who has repeatedly questioned the science behind climate change allegations. Until recently, Udall was considered a “safe seat” for the Democrats but recent polling has indicated a much closer race than previously expected. In Iowa, Steyer’s organization is set to support Representative Bruce Braley, who voted for the now dead 2009 climate change bill in the House. Braley’s Republican opponent has not yet been identified, but the front runners for that job have both denied climate change.
In Michigan, Steyer’s group will support Rep. Gary Peters, a House Democrat, who focuses on falling water levels in the Great Lakes and widespread drought conditions in Michigan farm country. In New Hampshire, another “too close to call” race, incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a strong climate change legislator, is facing off against a challenge from former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who was himself sent packingby Elizabeth Warren, after serving just two years in Secretary of State John Kerry’s old seat.
In the three gubernatorial races, in Maine, Pennsylvania and Florida, Steyer’s minions will attempt to unseat unpopular governors from two state houses, and a very strange climate change acceptor from a third. Unlike most climate change deniers, incumbent Republican Governor Paul LePage embraces climate change for all the wrong reasons. He believes that global warming will improve Maine’s maritime traffic by keeping ports ice free, while stimulating increased tourism by shortening Maine’s frigid winters. Unlike other Republican science deniers, Le Page is opposed to environmental legislation because he wants to see the climate change, or so he has said.
LePage’s most likely Democratic challenger, Rep. Mike Michaud, faces a three-way race with independent gadfly Eliot Cutler, an environmental activists who is a partner in one of the country’s largest environmental law firms. In a three-way contest, if Cutler makes it onto the ballot, his voters are more likely to come from Democratic or non-aligned candidates. Former Maine governor, and current Maine Senator Angus King, also an independent, is supporting Cutler’s candidacy, creating a “lesser of the two evils” problem for Chris Lehane, the Democratic party strategist that Steyer has hired to run his campaign effort. An independent in Maine’s state house would not be as bad as having a Republican there, so the race remains a toss-up.
In Florida, Steyer will back former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican convert to the Democratic party, who left the GOP over disagreements with the party’s positions on climate change. Critics claim that Crist merely wants his old job back after losing his Senate race to Marco Rubio in 2010. Crist will oppose the very unpopular incumbent, Rick Scott, who has managed to rub diametrically opposed constituencies the wrong way at the same time. Control over the governor’s office in Florida is important for a Democratic presidential victory because Florida has represented the balance of victory or defeat in the last four elections, and is likely to do so again in 2016. A Democratic incumbent may be able to unravel voter restrictions that have been championed by Scott’s henchmen in the state legislature, where Republicans are also vulnerable due to Florida’s lackluster economic recovery.
Finally, in Pennsylvania, there is a classic matchup brewing between a disliked incumbent and a business sector challenger with no previous elective experience, only, this time, the business sector challenger is a Democrat. Tom Wolf, who retired from his multi-million dollar kitchen cabinet company in December to prepare for the gubernatorial race, will challenge lackluster Republican incumbent Tom Corbett. Corbett, who has created 100,000 jobs, privatized the state’s publicly-owned network of liquor stores and, in a controversial move, privatized the state’s lottery, has the worst approval ratings of any sitting governor. Most of the negativity that Corbett has attracted is associated with his administration’s foot dragging over the Jerry Sandusky affair, and allegations of ethics violations.
Four incumbent Senate Democrats who are not getting any support from Steyer, Kay Hagen in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Warner of Virginia, are not getting any because all four support the Keystone pipeline project, which Steyer opposes. The net result of Steyer’s strategy could be a Republic takeover in the Senate, if all four Democrats lose their seats, but that is a chance that Steyer is willing to take for three different reasons. The Four Horsemen, as they are known in Democratic circles, are well-funded and there are other Democratic groups underwriting their campaigns. Secondly. even with both houses in Republican hands, Barack Obama will still be in the White House for the next two years, ready to veto Republican legislation that cuts too close to the bones of the safety net of essential government services.
The third reason is simple election mathematics. Even if the Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2014, they would have a very good chance of reclaiming a majority in 2016. Barring retirements or deaths in office, only 10 Democratic seats will be up for grabs in 2016, against 23 Republican seats that will be at risk in a presidential campaign year. Only two of the Democratic seats are current viewed as vulnerable, including Harry Reid in Nevada, and Michel Bennett in Colorado. Reid is expected to draw lots of negative campaign advertisements from Republican donors who would dearly love to see him retired by the electorate in Nevada. Michael Bennett, 49, won his last term by less than 2 percent of the vote and, in Colorado, faces a squad of left leaning third party candidates who could draw crucial votes from his campaign total.
On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans have eight very weak seats coming up for review by the voters, and five more where the incumbents are thought to be at risk. In Florida, Marco Rubio, who won with 48 percent of the vote in 2010, did so only because Charlie Crist siphoned off much of Democrat Kendrick Meek’s support with his quixotic independent campaign. In Iowa, 80 year-old Chuck Grassley may not run at all and, if he does, he faces an uphill climb against voters who think that he’s just too old to serve out another term. Other Republican incumbents face similar difficulties but it is still too early for accurate handicapping of these races.
With a margin of 13 weak seats for the Republicans against just two for the Democrats, 2016 looks like it could turn out to be a banner year for the Democrats in the Senate. The bottom line for Steyer is that 2014 is stage two in a testing process to determine whether smaller amounts of money properly invested to support candidates in winnable races can stave off a Republican Senate takeover in 2014.
If not, then 2014 campaign may turn out to be the dress rehearsal for a potential Steyer 2016 run for either state or federal office. California’s junior Senator, Barbara Boxer, 73, is up for re-election in 2016 and, if she decides to run again, the state’s senior Senator, Diane Feinstein, currently the oldest sitting senator at 80 years of age, will have to face re-election in 2018, at the age of 84. The 56 year-old billionaire has a lot of room to maneuver in and, if his plans bear fruit, there will be a number of governors and senators who will be beholden to him, and fewer GOP science deniers to contend with in the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress and important state houses across the country.
Commentary by Alan M. Milner, GLV National News Editor