After years of being outgunned by polluters and their allies, environmentalists have been celebrating the arrival of a savior: Tom Steyer, a Bay Area hedge-fund billionaire. Last year, he spent $11 million to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe get elected as Virginia governor, and millions more on anti–Keystone ads and the campaign to elect Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey to the Senate. And on Tuesday, The New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore reported, “He is rallying other deep-pocketed donors, seeking to build a war chest that would make his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, among the largest outside groups in the country, similar in scale to the conservative political network overseen by Charles and David Koch.”
The Koch brothers, naturally, are not sitting idly by as their enemies armor up. As Politico’s Ken Vogel wrote last month, “If the Koch brothers’ political operation seemed ambitious in 2010 or 2012, wait for what’s in store for 2014 and beyond. … This year, the Kochs’ close allies are rolling out a new, more integrated approach to politics. That includes wading into Republican primaries for the first time to ensure their ideal candidates end up on the ticket.”
The problem for progressives, as Vogel’s story and others make clear, is that in the era of unlimited outside political spending, liberals will usually be outraised by conservatives. And environmentalists will be outraised by polluters.
Just consider the amounts at stake on each side. Let’s start with Steyer, via the Times: “In early February, Mr. Steyer gathered two dozen of the country’s leading liberal donors and environmental philanthropists to his 1,800-acre ranch in Pescadero, Calif. … to ask them to join his efforts. People involved in the discussions say Mr. Steyer is seeking to raise $50 million from other donors to match $50 million of his own.”
And now for the Kochs. Their network spent more than $400 million on the 2012 election cycle, and they’re already spending big on this year’s midterms. From Politico: “Groups in the Koch network — led by the brothers’ main political vehicle Americans for Prosperity — spent $25 million between the summer [of 2013] and early this month on ads bashing Democrats over Obamacare, which have been credited for hurting Democratic senators who are vulnerable in 2014.” And they’re just getting started.
Also consider the vast wealth of some of the conservative donors the Kochs brought to their secret Palm Springs gathering last month. Mother Jones obtained a guest list, and it demonstrated two things that will always favor conservatives and polluting industries: There are more mega-fortunes on their side, and their wealthy businessmen — and they are almost all men — are pursuing their short-term financial interests, not mere concern for general human welfare. From Mother Jones:
The more than 40 donors courted by the Kochs include hedge fund and private-equity billionaires, real estate tycoons, and executives of top corporations, including Jockey International and TRT Holdings, owner of Omni Hotels and Gold’s Gym. …
Another top conservative contributor on the list is TRT Holdings’ cofounder Robert Rowling, whose net worth is estimated at $4.9 billion. During the 2012 election, Rowling directed $3.5 million to American Crossroads, the super-PAC spearheaded by Karl Rove, and he cut a $100,000 check to the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future. …
Other heavy hitters slated for meetings with the Koch brothers or their representatives included Carl Berg, a Silicon Valley real estate tycoon worth $1.1 billion; Ken Griffin, who founded the hedge fund Citadel and clocks in at No. 103 on the Forbes 400 (net worth, $4.4 billion); John W. Childs, a top private-equity investor; and Fred Klipsch, the chairman of the headphone and speaker company Klipsch Group.
This underscores the fact that a big-money system of unrestrained spending by rich individuals’ will reflect the views of the ruling class and the interests of large corporations — tilting heavily against environmental, financial, and labor regulations, progressive taxation, and public investment. (The event schedule obtained by Mother Jones also demonstrates that executives from Koch Industries itself are involved in the right-wing political fundraising. The company previously claimed it had no relationship to the brothers’ political activities.)
And the Kochs are by no means the only rich guys aiming to elect more Republicans. As Politico reported Tuesday:
A group of major GOP donors, led by New York billionaire Paul Singer, is quietly expanding its political footprint ahead of the midterm elections in an increasingly assertive effort to shape the direction of the Republican Party.
The operation was launched discreetly last year, with the previously unreported formation of a club called the American Opportunity Alliance to bring together some of the richest pro-business GOP donors in the country … Around the same time, Singer and his allies also formed a federal fundraising committee called Friends for an American Majority that raised big checks for a select list of the GOP’s most highly touted 2014 Senate hopefuls.
Those candidates are among the big names expected at a two-day retreat organized by the American Opportunity Alliance set for the last week of February at a swanky Colorado resort. The closed-door event — which is also expected to draw House Speaker John Boehner and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, according to Republicans familiar with the plans — is seen in GOP finance circles as a grand debut of sorts for Singer’s still-amorphous club. …
[T]he list of big-name pols expected at the American Opportunity Alliance’s upcoming Colorado gathering highlights the influence that only a few big donors can command in the post-Citizens United era, when a small group of wealthy individuals can reorder elections with just a few huge checks.
Singer’s group is backing Alaska Senate Republican hopeful Dan Sullivan, who was appointed by Sarah Palin to serve as state natural resources commissioner. Sullivan used the position to advocate for his state’s right to exploit natural resources and against federal efforts to protect Alaskan land.
Meanwhile, oil and gas industry PACs are pouring money into the reelection effort of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the campaigns of three Republicans who are seeking to replace retiring Democratic senators, Greenwire reported Tuesday. But they have also donated to Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska, who are up for reelection.
That points to another disadvantage for environmentalists. While the extractive industries can always count on Republicans to do their bidding, greens cannot always count on Democrats. Landrieu, who just became chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is an oil industry lackey with an extensive anti-environment record. Steyer is considering funding ads attacking Landrieu, but it’s not as if that would move her toward favoring environmental regulation. Being attacked from her left flank helps burnish her independent credentials, making her more appealing to the Louisiana electorate. Or perhaps it just softens her up for a Republican opponent in November. When you’re up against the financial muscle of the oil industry in a state like Louisiana, there are no good options.
So the fossil fuel industry and rich Republican donors will spread their money around this year, and Steyer will try to match them, but will likely come up short. It’s a problem that he even has to try.