Why Democrats Are Afraid of a Man Who’s Giving Them Millions

Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
May 12, 2014, 1 a.m.

Demo­crats love Tom Stey­er’s money. They’re split over Stey­er’s mouth.

Stey­er, a hedge-fund-man­ager-turned-green evan­gel­ist, says he plans to raise up to $100 mil­lion dur­ing the midterm elec­tions for can­did­ates who stand strong on cli­mate change. But as he doles out big checks to Demo­crats, Stey­er has also stepped in­to the spot­light — and that is mak­ing some in the party nervous.

Demo­crats have made cast­ing con­ser­vat­ives as be­hold­en to the ul­trarich cent­ral to their 2014 strategy, and that makes it awk­ward when a bil­lion­aire of their own puts him­self front and cen­ter. Stey­er is far from me­dia-shy: He fre­quently gives in­ter­views, and last month went a step fur­ther in pub­licly chal­len­ging Re­pub­lic­an-back­ing bil­lion­aires — and fa­vor­ite Demo­crat­ic tar­gets — Charles and Dav­id Koch to a de­bate over cli­mate change.

Stey­er’s per­sona, the skep­tics feel, opens Demo­crats up to charges of hy­po­crisy, and leaves too much of the party’s pro­file in the hands of a man who has been pop­ularly elec­ted to ex­actly noth­ing.

“Who nom­in­ated him to speak for any­thing?” said Douglas Schoen, a Demo­crat­ic strategist and former ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Clin­ton. “He’s en­titled to make con­tri­bu­tions, but the idea that he would step in­to the spot­light is just ri­dicu­lous.”

Oth­ers fear that Stey­er, a wealthy en­vir­on­ment­al­ist liv­ing in North­ern Cali­for­nia, plays in­to a dec­ades-long GOP ef­fort to paint Demo­crats as out of touch with work­ing-class Amer­ica. In­tent on mak­ing those charges stick, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee rolled out a series of at­tacks last week de­scrib­ing the mega-donor as a wealthy elite bank­rolling the lib­er­al agenda. 

Stey­er con­tinu­ally re­jects com­par­is­ons between him­self and the Koch broth­ers, say­ing that they — whose for­tune comes from the fossil-fuel-de­pend­ent Koch In­dus­tries — are fight­ing against cli­mate ac­tion out of self-in­terest, where­as his will­ing­ness to spend stems from ideo­lo­gic­al con­vic­tion and a de­sire to pro­tect the en­vir­on­ment.

But some party strategists are skep­tic­al that that line will play with in­de­pend­ent voters. “I don’t think it will work for Demo­crats to claim that their bil­lion­aires are pure at heart while con­ser­vat­ive bil­lion­aires only have selfish mo­tiv­ates,” said Will Mar­shall, pres­id­ent of the Pro­gress­ive Policy In­sti­tute and founder of the Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil. “That might work with par­tis­ans and true be­liev­ers, but I don’t think that’s go­ing to play well with the Amer­ic­an pub­lic.”

For his part, Stey­er has pledged to play nice in the primary sea­son. The bil­lion­aire wants to make op­pos­i­tion to the Key­stone XL pipeline a cent­ral is­sue in the up­com­ing elec­tions and he’s not likely to sup­port sen­at­ors like Mary Landrieu who think the pipeline should be built. But aides to Stey­er say he un­der­stands the im­port­ance of keep­ing the Sen­ate in Demo­crat­ic hands and won’t at­tack pipeline-lov­ing mod­er­ates on the left. That pledge spares Demo­crats some of the primary “pur­ity test” struggles that have led the GOP to nom­in­ate a string of failed can­did­ates like Christine O’Don­nell, Todd Akin, and Richard Mour­dock.

And plenty on the left see Stey­er as a god­send, of­fer­ing Demo­crats a cam­paign war chest to com­pete with big Re­pub­lic­an money dur­ing a dif­fi­cult primary sea­son.

“In the end, the dona­tions far out­weigh the li­ab­il­ity,” said Steve Rosenth­al, pres­id­ent of the Or­gan­iz­ing Group, a con­sult­ing firm that con­tracts with pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions. “Of course there are al­ways risks, but the party needs someone to step in­to the races right now.”

Demo­crats’ in­tern­al squabble over Stey­er is a symp­tom of the party’s lar­ger am­bi­val­ence to­ward a polit­ic­al play­ing field in which a string of Su­preme Court de­cisions have gran­ted vast in­flu­ence to deep-pock­eted in­di­vidu­als and or­gan­iz­a­tions. For a party that has long ral­lied around lim­it­ing money in polit­ics, it’s awk­ward for Demo­crats to act­ively cul­tiv­ate mega-donors of their own. But the prag­mat­ism of com­pet­ing with Re­pub­lic­ans and the lure of a well-fin­anced cam­paign have al­most en­tirely beat out those con­cerns — most blatantly in 2008 when Pres­id­ent Obama re­versed his prom­ise to use pub­lic fin­an­cing for his White House bid.

And so — in­tern­al struggles or oth­er­wise — there is vir­tu­ally zero chance that Demo­crats would turn down Stey­er’s money, or even risk ag­grav­at­ing the bil­lion­aire through a pub­lic re­quest for si­lence. One Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive in­ter­viewed who would only speak an­onym­ously noted that nearly every party fig­ure in na­tion­al polit­ics is some­how con­nec­ted to Stey­er.

What re­mains un­clear is how well Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks on Stey­er — or, in­deed, either party’s at­tacks on mega-donors — will res­on­ate with voters. Rosenth­al said he was skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­ans could suc­cess­fully rally voters around the idea that a Demo­crat­ic donor was mak­ing their lives more dif­fi­cult by push­ing for ac­tion on cli­mate change.

It’s also un­likely that Stey­er could have avoided the spot­light, even if he ran from it. The Koch broth­ers have rarely en­deav­oured to call at­ten­tion to them­selves — they quietly turned down Stey­er’s de­bate in­vit­a­tion earli­er this month — but the Left has suc­cess­fully made them house­hold names. There’s every in­dic­a­tion that re­gard­less of what Stey­er does, Re­pub­lic­ans are com­mit­ted to do­ing the same.

“Right now Re­pub­lic­ans are start­ing to really scru­tin­ize Stey­er — how he made his money, where it came from,” said Elaine Kamar­ck, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and former Clin­ton White House policy ad­viser. “They’re go­ing to try to dis­cred­it him and use that as a way to dis­cred­it his cause.”

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