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Tom Steyer to return to Florida’s 2020 campaign trail

The billionaire calls losses by former Senator Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum “the two most disappointing races in the United States.” But he doesn’t view 2018 as a wash, and still sees Florida as the key to 2020.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. [Tampa Bay Times]
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. [Tampa Bay Times]
Published Apr. 11, 2019

At a glance, you could argue that Florida has been a money pit for billionaire Tom Steyer’s political network.

The Democratic hedge-fund manager and climate activist’s NextGen America has spent up to $30 million in Florida over the past five years, with limited results. The left-leaning organization helped Democrats take the U.S. House of Representatives last fall by flipping two crucial congressional seats in Miami, but Florida’s formerly climate-denying governor still became a U.S. senator and voters still elected as his successor a prominent surrogate of President Donald Trump, whom Steyer wants badly to impeach.

Steyer acknowledges that the results in those two high-profile races were a let-down, calling losses by former Senator Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum “the two most disappointing races in the United States.” But he doesn’t view 2018 as a wash, and still sees Florida as the key to 2020.

In fact, after breaking down the results of the Florida midterms, Steyer says he’s as confident as ever that his get-out-the-vote operation is working in the nation’s largest swing state. A newly released post-mortem by NextGen’s state youth director found that participation spiked last year by voters under the age of 40. And the 52,000 voters registered by NextGen in a statewide mail, digital campaign and college campus initiative cast ballots at an even greater clip.

With the Florida Democratic Party and Gillum already planning to spend millions on a massive voter registration effort, Steyer says he’s also prepared to keep working. He’s not entirely sure what that will look like so far out from election day, but expects to fight efforts by Florida lawmakers to curb voting rights, advocate for expanded on-campus voting sites and organize youth town halls for some of the Democratic Party’s most important politicians in the state.

“I don’t think you can look at a presidential map that the Republicans win without Florida,” Steyer, who was in Miami Tuesday on business, said during an interview at the JW Marriott Miami on Brickell Avenue.

According to NextGen’s elections analysis of the state’s November voter file, voters under the age of 40 went from casting 18 percent of the vote in 2014 to 24 percent last year, and at the same time supported Democratic candidates over Republicans by a 30-point margin. But most importantly, the young and typically uninvolved Florida voters registered by NextGen cast ballots at a 63 percent clip, which matched the statewide turnout.

Steyer’s team chalks that number up to the way these voters were registered: with an informational campaign waged on the same college campuses where NextGen successfully fought to open early voting centers and election-day precincts. To that point, NextGen says 61 percent of students registered by the group at Florida A&M cast ballots, as did 80 percent of those registered at Bethune Cookman.

Steyer’s continued presence in Florida is consequential for Democrats, who’ve been at a financial disadvantage for years after spending a generation as the state’s minority party. And he says that he’s still concerned about Florida’s future despite the bipartisan praise being heaped on Gov. Ron DeSantis for the priority the former congressman has given to Everglades and water-quality restoration and his unprecedented move to hire a chief state resiliency officer and chief science officer.

“The idea that appointing a chief science officer is considered a step forward is ridiculous,” Steyer said, arguing that DeSantis’ reluctance to target climate emissions or tackle the root cause of climate change dramatically undercuts his efforts. “He’s a fake environmentalist.”

Steyer said he’s talked to Gillum about working together as the former gubernatorial candidate attempts to register a million new voters in Florida ahead of 2020, but isn’t sure how and whether that will happen. But he continues to place a high premium on the outcome of the looming elections in the state, which he sees as the key to defeating Trump and fighting climate change.

“If Florida is the key swing state in the presidential election, then Miami is the point of the spear in terms of taking punishment from climate decisions,” he said. “If any place in the whole world should be worried about this, it’s the city we’re sitting in.”

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