Tom Steyer is bad at politics.
In 2014, his primary mission was stopping Republicans from taking over the U.S. Senate. He failed.
This year, Steyer tried to take back the U.S. Senate for Democrats and get Hillary Clinton elected president, to preserve the so-called Clean Power Plan and other parts of the Obama administration’s climate agenda. He failed again.
Steyer, a retired hedge-fund manager and the nation’s largest single political donor, has thrown good money after bad trying to turn climate change into a major political issue. Beyond his spending on elections, he has funded and publicly supported “keep it in the ground” activists who reflexively oppose any project tied to oil, natural gas or coal. Steyer has even thrown his weight behind a campaign to get universities to divest from fossil fuels. And all the while, domestic energy production in the United States has surged with broad, bipartisan support.
Steyer’s brand of climate politics is a failure because he’s lecturing voters, not listening to them. In poll after poll, voters rank the environment as one of the least pressing issues facing the country. But they do care a great deal about economic issues, and all the measures pushed by anti-fossil fuel activists – taxes, mandates and subsidies – carry a significant cost.
Asking people to pay more for energy in the name of something they aren’t very worried about is a losing proposition – just ask the lawmakers who lost their jobs after Al Gore’s proposed energy tax in the early 1990s or the Obama administration’s failed push for “cap-and-trade” climate legislation in the late 2000s.
But Steyer ignored these lessons of history. He kept pushing the climate politics on voters, and tried to placate their economic concerns with promises of new jobs in renewable energy and government assistance for laid-off workers. Almost nobody believed him, though, and some of his harshest critics have been other Democrats.
“Tom Steyer and his allies oppose an all-of-the-above energy policy that not only creates good union jobs, but offers to keep the lights on and meet our nation’s energy needs even as we transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future,” the Laborers International Union of North America President Terry O’Sullivan said in May. “His vision of leaving oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in the ground kills jobs, drives up energy costs, and threatens to strangle our economy.”
“As a hedge-fund billionaire, he may not feel the pain of such self-righteous, patronizing and damaging policies, but our members, and all American families, do. ‘Leave it in the Ground’ is not a viable energy policy; it’s political bullshit.”
This year, the battleground state of Colorado – one of the top energy-producing states in the country – shows how far Steyer has fallen. He poured at least $2 million into Colorado politics this election cycle, according to federal and state election records. The money, funneled through Steyer’s NextGen Climate political action committee, paid for research, polling and voter turnout to help Clinton and win a series of down-ballot races for Democrats.
In particular, Steyer wanted Democrats to regain full control of the Colorado state legislature. They needed a net gain of just one seat in the state Senate, and the California billionaire even had help from another ultra-wealthy donor – New York hedge fund tycoon George Soros – who also put money behind Democrats in Colorado’s key state legislative races.
While Clinton won Colorado’s nine electoral college votes, the effort to flip the state legislature failed. The one-seat pickup never materialized and Republicans will keep control of the state Senate.
But it gets worse. The California billionaire’s political machine was deeply involved in another down-ballot race: The battle for control of the board of regents at the University of Colorado (CU). Conservation Colorado and 350.org – two Steyer-funded groups – backed Alice Madden, an environmentalist, former state lawmaker and former climate official in the Obama administration.
Anti-fossil fuel activists hoped Madden’s election to a statewide seat on the board would give Democrats a majority and pave the way for CU to divest from fossil fuels. Madden also tried to make climate politics a major issue in the race, but the message fell flat. She eventually distanced herself from the divestment push, but by then, the damage was done.
“Colorado is an ‘all of the above’ state and CU is an ‘all of the above’ university,” Ganahl said in response to Madden’s climate campaigning. Ganahl won the race against Madden.
So where does Tom Steyer go now? Here’s some free advice: Retreat back to California, where more people agree with you. Maybe not enough people to get you elected to anything, but at least you’ll have more company.
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.