If there was any lingering doubt about environmental politics playing a huge role in Colorado elections this year, California billionaire Tom Steyer just erased it.
The San Francisco hedge-fund manager and environmental activist recently gave $200,000 to the Conservation Colorado Victory Fund (CCVF), according to state campaign finance records. CCVF is the campaign arm of Conservation Colorado, probably the best-known member of the state’s environmental lobby.
Through CCVF, Conservation Colorado openly targets state-level political races with direct mail, radio and digital advertising. In the 2014 election cycle, CCVF spent roughly $1 million in state legislative races and other contests in Colorado.
Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the State Senate and the District 19 race between Republican incumbent Laura Woods and Democratic challenger Rachel Zenziger could decide which party controls that chamber in 2017. And since Democrats already have a majority in the House, winning this race would restore one-party rule in state government under Gov. John Hickenlooper (D).
The stakes are high and CCVF isn’t holding back. It has spent more than $48,000 so far on mailers attacking Woods and promoting Zenziger. This follows a much earlier direct-mail onslaught in late 2015 against Woods which was also financially supported by Conservation Colorado. In addition to direct mail, the group has also spent more than $36,000 canvassing voters in District 29 on Zenziger’s behalf.
But this is just the beginning. Conservation Colorado has bragged to political reporters that it will spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in an effort to defeat Woods and hand control of the state legislature to Democrats. As you might expect, the group’s Sept. 16 press release doesn’t mention Steyer or the $200,000 that CCVF received from his political action committee, NextGen Climate Action.
But reporters need only have checked CCVF’s campaign finance reports to find the contribution from NextGen Climate, disclosed on Sept. 6. And yet, for more than two weeks, it went unreported by the state’s political press.
What’s more, this kind of spending from the California billionaire in Colorado politics should come as no surprise. Ever since the last election – in which Steyer spent $8.5 million in a failed effort to save U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D) – he’s been building his political machine in Colorado. He’s forged close ties with Conservation Colorado and spent an “extraordinary” amount of money on research and polling, according to Floyd Ciruli, one of the state’s top political analysts.
In fact, four months ago, Ciruli said the California billionaire has enough data and enough money to influence every major contest on the Colorado ballot this year, from the presidential race to the state legislature and everything in between. Just like the Blueprint – a multi-million dollar campaign in the mid-2000s that handed control of the state legislature to Democrats – Steyer is building a “Greenprint” to achieve “vertical control of the ballot, taking over the state for his environmental agenda,” Ciruli said.
Steyer has even brought in help from New York hedge-fund billionaire George Soros. Both men are senior figures in the Democracy Alliance, a left-wing donor network of millionaires and billionaires which Politico describes as “the left’s secret club.” And both men have clearly signaled where they will focus their outside spending in the battle for control of the Colorado state legislature this year.
Steyer and Soros have each made reportable contributions to Democrats in five state legislative races: Zenzinger (SD-19), Jenise May (SD-25), Daniel Kagan (SD-26), Tony Exum (HD-17) and Joe Salazar (HD-31). And, as if you had to ask, all of these candidates have been endorsed by Conservation Colorado.
Make no mistake: These billionaires have a First Amendment right to say what they want and spend as they wish on politics and matters of public debate, same as anyone. But they don’t have a constitutional right to a free pass from the state’s political press. They deserve just as much scrutiny as other political players have received this election cycle, and they’re not getting it. Not even close.
For anyone who cares about energy and environmental policy in Colorado, this is especially concerning. Tom Steyer opposes fracking. He funds and supports the same “keep it in the ground” activists who just tried to wipe out the state’s oil and natural gas sector with a series of anti-fracking ballot measures. With new influence over the state legislature, he could demand new laws and regulations that pick up where the anti-fracking ballot measures left off.
Steyer has a right to petition the government and support any candidate he likes, but at the same time, his anti-fossil fuel agenda poses a major risk to the state economy. Voters deserve to know about his escalating involvement in Colorado politics. They deserve to know how much his ideas would cost Colorado, one of the top fossil-fuel producing states in the nation.
Most importantly, voters deserve to find out before the election, while they can still do something about 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.