A billionaire retired investor is forging plans to spend as much as $100 million during the 2014 election, seeking to pressure federal and state officials, including Florida's, to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers.
The donor, Tom Steyer, a Democrat who founded one of the world's most successful hedge funds, burst onto the national political scene during last year's elections, when he spent $11 million to help elect Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia and millions more intervening in a Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts.
Now 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 the Koch brothers, Charles and David.
In early February, Steyer gathered two-dozen of the country's leading liberal donors and environmental philanthropists at his 1,800-acre ranch in Pescadero, Calif. — which raises prime grass-fed beef — to ask them to join his efforts. People involved in the discussions say Steyer is seeking to raise $50 million from other donors to match $50 million of his own.
The money would move through Steyer's fast-growing, San Francisco-based political apparatus into select 2014 races. Targets include the Florida governor's race. While campaigning for his first term, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said he was not convinced that climate change is caused primarily by human activity.
"I have not been convinced," he told reporters in July 2010. Asked what he needs to convince him, "Something more convincing than what I've read."
Steyer's group is also looking at the Senate race in Iowa, in the hope that a win for the Democratic candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, an outspoken proponent of measures to limit climate change, could help shape the 2016 presidential nominating contests.
Steyer also prospected for potential donors on a recent trip to New York City, where he met with aides to former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has made championing climate change a focus of his post-mayoral political life, but whose own super PAC has focused chiefly on gun control.
"Our feeling on 2014 is, we want to do things that are both substantively important and will have legs after that," Steyer said in an interview. "We don't want to go someplace, win and move on."
Steyer, 56, accumulated more than $1.5 billion during his days at the hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, before he retired in 2012.
The newest wave of single-issue super PACs — including groups seeking greater regulation of guns and of campaign fundraising — has drawn criticism even from those who share those priorities.
"A small number of the richest individuals in America are attempting to use their enormous wealth to purchase government decisions to advance their own personal interests, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that favors tighter limits on money in politics. "This is about as far away as we can get from 'representative government.' "
Steyer poured tens of millions of dollars into a successful 2012 ballot initiative in California, which eliminated a loophole in the state's corporate income tax and dedicated some of the resulting revenue to clean-energy projects. He also has helped finance opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, appearing in a series of self-funded 90-second ads seeking to stop the project.
Those efforts cemented his partnership with Chris Lehane, a California-based Democratic strategist, and heralded the emergence of NextGen Climate, now a 20-person operation encompassing a super PAC, a research organization and a political advocacy nonprofit group. The group employs polling, research and social media to find climate-sensitive voters and spends millions of dollars in television advertising to try to persuade them.
It already is among the biggest environmental pressure groups in the country: For example, the League of Conservation Voters, considered the most election-oriented of such groups, reported spending about $15 million on campaign ads in 2012.
And while Steyer has been critical of Democrats who waver on climate issues, he has aimed most of his firepower at Republicans.
The new fundraising push seeks to tap into the booming fortunes of Silicon Valley, where many donors rank climate change as their top political issue. It also signals a shift within the environmental movement, as donors — frustrated that neither Democratic nor Republican officials are willing to prioritize climate change measures — shift their money from philanthropy and education into campaign vehicles designed to win elections.
David Topper, a New York private equity investor who attended the meeting at Steyer's ranch, said: "You need to be agnostic as to party. If I find someone who has the right position on climate change, do I care if he owns six guns? Not at all."
Unlike some on the left, Steyer has embraced the political toolbox that was opened to wealthy donors and other interests in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which made it easier for businesses, unions and rich individuals to pour unlimited money into elections.
"We have a democratic system, there are parts we would want to reform or change, and Citizens United is prominent in that," Steyer said. "But we've accepted the world as it is."
Steyer said there was no fixed budget for his group and declined to confirm his fundraising target.
"Is it going to take $100 million? I have no idea," he said, before suggesting that might be a lowball number. "I think that would be a really cheap price to answer the generational challenge of the world."