— ConservationColorado (@ConservationCO) June 5, 2015
Tom Steyer – the San Francisco billionaire and environmental activist who spent more than $8.5 million trying to save former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in 2014 – is preparing to make another big play in Colorado politics this year. The presidential contest and the reelection campaign of another Senate Democrat, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, are obvious targets for his money. But don’t be surprised if Steyer’s cash shows up in other places, too, such as anti-fracking ballot measures and the battle for control of the state legislature.
According to a review of federal campaign finance disclosures, Steyer’s political action committee – NextGen Climate – spent more than $357,000 on research and polling services in Colorado during 2015. In fact, from Jan. 1 to Nov. 31, NextGen put more money into Colorado research and polling firms than it spent on national outfits based in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Disclosures for December 2015 aren’t due to the Federal Election Commission until the end of this month.
NextGen Climate’s FEC filings show $357,705 in spending with Colorado research and polling firms.
Steyer is best known in Colorado for the botched effort to save Udall – part of a $74 million push by the California billionaire to win U.S. Senate seats and state-level elections for Democrats during 2014. But before racing to Udall’s defense, Steyer’s political operation held talks with environmental activist groups and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) about funding several anti-fracking measures proposed for the statewide ballot. Those ballot measures were pulled, allowing Steyer to focus on the 2014 Senate race, but his work with environmental activists in Colorado never really stopped.
In particular, Steyer has forged close ties with Conservation Colorado, an environmental group that openly targets state-level political races with direct mail, radio and digital advertising. The San Francisco billionaire was even embraced as a “visionary” at a Conservation Colorado awards dinner held in his honor in June 2015. The group’s executive director, Pete Maysmith, applauded Steyer’s work to “help elect candidates willing to take leadership and action” to advance their shared agenda.
— ConservationColorado (@ConservationCO) June 5, 2015
In his own speech, Steyer praised Colorado as a state that can shape national policy, and said the 2016 election would be “totally critical.” But when the Denver Post asked to speak with Steyer about his plans for Colorado, the billionaire’s handlers refused.
Steyer has left some clues, however. First, the Colorado organization he built to defend Udall never went away. Right after the 2014 election, a senior adviser to NextGen Climate said Steyer’s Colorado campaign would continue through 2016, according to former Denver Post reporter Kurtis Lee, now with the Los Angeles Times. In fact, another top lieutenant for Steyer told Politico the 2014 campaign was a dry run which gave Steyer “one of the biggest political infrastructures in the country” to use in 2016.
Steyer has also signaled he will campaign on a range of political issues besides the environment, including the minimum wage, because “the progressive voice is really one big issue about fairness in society, including climate.” As reported by National Journal, this strategy was pioneered in Colorado two years ago, when NextGen Climate attacked Udall’s opponent, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R), on “a wide array of social issues,” including gay marriage. Steyer first hinted at the new strategy during an August 2014 conference in Aspen, after Democratic leaders “schooled” Steyer on the split within Democratic ranks over environmental policy, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Steyer’s track record further suggests he won’t be limited to the presidential contest in Colorado or the effort to reelect Bennet, who served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee two years ago. Before holding talks with Colorado’s anti-fracking groups about statewide ballot measures in 2014, Steyer called for a fracking ban in his home state of California, which could only be lifted on a county-by-county basis with a two-thirds popular vote. Steyer’s views are very close to those of anti-fracking groups in Colorado, who have proposed a mix of statewide and local bans for the 2016 ballot. Steyer and Rep. Polis – who championed the 2014 anti-fracking measures before they were pulled – are “kindred spirits,” according to a top adviser to the California billionaire. Steyer has a long history with ballot initiatives in California, and is already backing a 2016 measure in Washington state to impose a carbon tax.
Along with ballot measures, Steyer also has a history of throwing his money into state legislative races. In 2014, for example, he poured money into Washington and Oregon trying to win seats for Democrats. In some cases, NextGen Climate did not spend the money directly – it was given to environmental groups like Washington Conservation Voters and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. NextGen Climate also gave generously to the national League of Conservation Voters for campaigning in Oregon, Washington and several other states, with the group’s president telling The Washington Post, “There’s not a day that goes by that someone on our team doesn’t talk to someone on the Steyer team.”
Which brings us back to Conservation Colorado. If swaying state legislative races is part of Steyer’s plan, he could not find a better partner than Conservation Colorado. The group spent more than $950,000 on Colorado elections in 2014, and appears to have hit the ground running in 2016. In a little-noticed move, Conservation Colorado gave $10,000 to Fairness for Colorado, a 527 political organization, in September 2015. According to state records, Fairness for Colorado – which focuses on economic issues and social welfare, not the environment – has already spent almost $11,000 with a Denver direct-mail firm.
Colorado Secretary of State records show Conservation Colorado and America Votes are funding a group called Fairness for Colorado, which has spent $10,912.98 with a Denver direct-mail firm.
Fairness for Colorado, created in June 2015, has only one other donor thus far – America Votes. This Washington, D.C.-based group is a self-described “permanent campaign” for “building progressive power” in more than 20 states, including Colorado. America Votes is supported by a coalition of about 40 national interest groups, such as teacher unions and gun control groups. But as coincidence would have it, Steyer’s NextGen Climate is also a coalition member.
It’s painfully obvious that Tom Steyer is spending big – and planning to spend much, much bigger – to influence Colorado elections in 2016. But the San Francisco billionaire is hiding from questions and feels no pressure to fully disclose his intentions for our state. We’ll see how much longer he can get away with it.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org