The billionaire is ready to take out Florida's multi-millionaire governor.
In a nationwide push to fight Republicans who deny the existence of man-made climate change, investor-turned-activist Tom Steyer has founded a Florida political committee, seeded it with $750,000 of his own money, and says he'll spend far more to help Democrat Charlie Crist defeat Gov. Rick Scott.
Florida Democrats are buzzing about Steyer spending $10 million, which he won't discuss. Republicans say the California Democrat is a phony environmentalist, but they nevertheless worry that his financial commitment could be real in Florida.
"It's hard to look at the map of the United States and not understand that not only is Florida ground zero for climate [change], it's the third most-populous state," Steyer said in a sit-down interview Friday with the Miami Herald.
"When you think about why this is an important state to be in, it's because it's actually a linchpin," said Steyer, 57, underscoring Florida's standing as the nation's biggest swing state.
Of the seven states in which Steyer plans to make waves, Florida is the most expensive in which to campaign. In the coming weeks, Steyer plans to open NextGen Climate Action Florida's headquarters in Miami, which is one of the nation's most at-risk cities from rising seas and hurricanes.
NextGen Climate, which has already conducted extensive polling, plans to spend big on field organization efforts to identify and motivate voters. It won't advertise only on TV, like some elections groups.
Scott, who pumped $75.1 million of his own money into his first 2010 campaign, has spent more than $20 million on TV ads. Crist and Democrats have spent about $5 million. Scott's political and campaign committees have an $8.1 million cash-on-hand advantage over Crist's.
All told, spending in Florida could top $150 million, two-thirds of it for Scott.
Amid Scott's initial unanswered ad blitz, the race tightened in June. Recent polls indicate it's essentially a tie.
"If someone spends $10 million, it absolutely could alter the margins in the race," said David "DJ" Johnson, a top Florida political consultant and former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida.
"There are just over 90 days left for the general election, so $10 million in August gets your attention," he said. "If they can identify single-issue voters, liberals — people who don't typically show up in a governor's race to vote, it's a cause for concern."
Nationwide, Steyer's group could spend anywhere from $50 million to $100 million.
Steyer has already started advertising in Pennsylvania and Iowa against Republicans. He also said NextGen Climate plans to become active in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire. Steyer spent $11 million to help Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe win in 2013.
"They did it in Virginia," said Ben Pollara, a Democratic fundraiser and leader of Florida's medical-marijuana initiative. "They can definitely do it here."
Republicans are fighting against Steyer by pointing out that he made his fortune with Farallon Capital Management, one of the nation's largest investors in the very fossil fuels he now wants to limit.
Steyer said he no longer invests in coal and that his commitment to addressing climate change has changed his life.
One of the nation's leading opponents of climate change-fighting legislation, the billionaire investor Koch brothers, are on Scott's side. They help fund the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, a climate-change-denying group that last month began canvassing select neighborhoods and hanging pro-Scott fliers on doors.
Steyer has been labeled the liberal alternative to the Kochs. They say climate-change legislation is a job killer; Steyer says doing nothing about climate change is bad for job creation and the environment.
Though the polling is far from conclusive, surveys indicate Floridians say climate change is as an important issue but not a top concern. Steyer aims to change that.
"The polling looks good. The urgency looks bad," he said. "There's usually one issue that defines a generation. And where you come out on that and whether you participate in the solution defines your contribution."
Spending millions in Florida is worth it, Steyer said, because of the environment, the governor's race and the looming 2016 presidential race, where Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush — skeptics of man-made climate change — are considering a White House bid.
"If you look at the four big states, there's one that's purple. There's one that's red. And there's two that are blue," Steyer said, referring to Florida, Texas and then California and New York.
Bottom line: If Republicans lose Florida and its 29 electoral votes — more than 10 percent of the needed total — then it's almost impossible for them to win the White House.
Climate change recently emerged as an issue in the governor's race, but Scott — who once said he didn't believe in the idea of man-made global warming – won't talk about it. Now he just says "I'm not a scientist."
A group of Florida climate scientists then offered to meet with him. Scott, after Crist announced he'd sit down with the scientists, said he would, as well — but no date has been set.
When Crist met with one of the scientists two weeks ago, the Scott campaign caught him hitching a ride on the private jet of a developer who had been fined for violating environmental rules.
Crist ducked press questions about it.
"That is not the issue of today. The issue is who really cares about Florida," Crist said, bashing Scott for refusing to even give his position on climate change.
Scott's campaign said in a statement that "Charlie Crist, like Steyer, is a hypocrite on the environment. Two peas in a pod."
"Maybe Tom Steyer didn't get the memo that Charlie Crist's commitment to the environment is all hot air," Scott's campaign said.
Scott and his campaign also point to numerous environmental projects Scott approved as governor that had languished under Crist — a partial legacy of the bad economy on Crist's watch when spending on schools, public-safety and healthcare took precedence.
As governor, Crist pushed what was known as "cap-and-trade" climate-change legislation that ultimately sought to incentivize nonfossil fuels and slowly raise the cost of energy sources derived from carbon, such as coal, gasoline and natural gas.
Crist's legislation also sought to give Floridians energy-saving tax breaks, but they never became a reality in the down economy.
Crist made climate change a hallmark of his administration at first and hosted an internationally recognized 2007 Miami global-warming symposium that featured California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Crist initially backed away from the issue during his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate as a Republican. He then became an independent, resumed his climate-change advocacy but lost the Senate race anyway.
Scott succeeded Crist and slowly dismantled the cap-and-trade legislation. Now, the only major vestige of the law is a benefit for power companies to raise rates in anticipation of building nuclear power plants, which helps Scott contributors such as Florida Power & Light, a power-company leader in alternative energy.
Along with its parent company, NextEra, FPL has given more than $800,000 directly to Scott and his political committee since 2010 and $700,000 to the Republican Party of Florida this election cycle.
"There's a helluva lot of money on the other side. Go take a look at what has been spent so far," Steyer said. "We need to have enough of a voice to talk back against concentrated economic interests."
Steyer said he's ready to respond if Scott or others pump millions more into the race.
"This is a competitive situation," Steyer said. "It's dynamic. So if you go in and say: 'This is how much we're going to spend,' you're a fool."