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.”

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
These (Supposed) Iowa and NH Escorts Tell All
8 hours ago
NATIONAL JOURNAL AFTER DARK

Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:

  • Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
  • Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
  • They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
  • One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
Source:
STATE VS. FEDERAL
Restoring Some Sanity to Encryption
8 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
8 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Hillary Is Running Against the Bill of 1992
8 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Trevor Noah Needs to Find His Voice. And Fast.
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”

Source:
×