Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer targets Florida millennials with $3.5 million voter outreach

It's part of a $30 million nationwide effort ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. (ALEX LEARY   |   Times)
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. (ALEX LEARY | Times)
Published March 7, 2018

WASHINGTON — Tom Steyer is as intense in person as in those TV ads calling for President Donald Trump's impeachment.

"This is a fight for the soul of America," he declares from a booth at a luxury hotel down the street from the White House. "Really."

A billionaire former hedge fund executive from San Francisco, Steyer isn't talking about Trump but the great untapped resource of American politics: millennials.

The group now matches baby boomers for the largest slice of the electorate but has woefully underperformed at the polls.

Steyer, 60, is pouring $30 million into what he calls the largest youth organizing program in American history ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Florida is a primary focus, with dozens of people already working on college campuses to register voters and maintain their interest.

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"People tend to think it's too time consuming, it's too expensive, so they don't do it," Steyer said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. "From our standpoint, this is a critical part of having the kind of fair democracy that we want and we think the country would be much better off.

"It's not that they are uniformed, it's not that they are lazy. It's that they don't necessarily believe the system serves them."

The broad outline of Steyer's 10-state plan was released in January but Florida details were revealed for the first time this week.

Steyer's NextGen America will spend at least $3.5 million in the state and has plans to double the current 50 staffers to cover 40 college campuses, including 10 community colleges and four historically black colleges.

It will target 1.5 million young voters online and through the mail. Some 65,000 doors will be knocked on multiple times in hopes of converting identified sporadic voters into reliable ones.

The effort will focus on supporting the Democratic candidate for governor, Sen. Bill Nelson's re-election, vulnerable first-term U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, and flipping three South Florida congressional seats held by Republicans.

That goal dovetails with Steyer's hope of recapturing Democratic control in Washington and forcing an impeachment vote, even though party leaders have dismissed his campaign as an unwanted distraction.

"There is a huge split between American citizens and Washington insiders," said Steyer, whose impeachment petition has drawn about 5 million signatures. "It is clear on a daily basis that this president is dangerous."

Steyer practically shook with outrage at a fresh headline in the New York Times that indicated the Trump administration had not spent a dollar of the $120 million allocated to combat foreign meddling in elections.

Still, Steyer insists the organizing effort has broader aims. "If we have terrible turnout and people feel disconnected, then the worst can happen," he said.

A liberal counterweight to the conservative Koch Brothers, who fund their own youth organizing group, Steyer has poured tens of millions into Democratic campaigns and largely focused before on climate change. He played heavily in Florida's last gubernatorial campaign but failed to get Democrat Charlie Crist elected. He has mounted numerous other failed campaign efforts.

"There are literally millions of eligible voters who aren't registered to vote," said Eric Jotkoff, a Florida Democratic strategist not connected to Steyer's group. "Working to get just a small percentage of those folks to turn out can make a difference in these critical midterms."

Steyer's new effort seeks to rally young voters around any other issues they care about, including immigration, health care and criminal justice reform. The other states being targeted: Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, California, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Arizona.

A screen shot from an ad in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race that supported Democrat Ralph Northam was paid for by NextGen America, a group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer. (NextGen America via YouTube)
A screen shot from an ad in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race that supported Democrat Ralph Northam was paid for by NextGen America, a group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer. (NextGen America via YouTube)

Virginia's fall 2017 election provides a template. NextGen employed 60 campus organizers and student fellows and gathered 20,000 voter registrations in two months as Democrats, including gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam, were swept into office. Young voters turned out in historic numbers. The Alabama U.S. Senate election in December, also won by a Democrat, drew similar interest among college students.

Independently, Steyer has pledged $1 million to register high school students to vote following the Parkland school shooting, which has resulted in an outpouring of activism, and he is supporting the march in Washington later this month.

Historically, getting young people to vote has been a challenge, with only half of those aged 18-29 casting ballots in 2016, according to exit polls, better than 2012 but down some from 2008 when Barack Obama first ran.

In Florida, Hillary Clinton performed abysmally with young voters in the primary against Bernie Sanders but recovered for the general election, taking 57 percent of the vote from people ages 18-29 vs. 35 percent for Trump, who still narrowly won the state, in good part on the reliability of older voters.

NextGen staffers began work in Florida last summer and have ratcheted up efforts this year — capitalizing on what has already been an intense focus on politics since Trump's election and an outpouring of Democratic activism.

"It's insane the amount of young people that are champing at the bit to get involved," said Carly Cass, 27, the Florida state director. "They are 19, 20 and they realize they have to live in this country even after our parents are gone and that's really the driving force."