Green Greenbacks Fail to Sway Elections

San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer was demonstrably a heck of a hedge fund investor. But as an investor in partisan politics, he’s a bust.

Steyer, the green equivalent of the Koch brothers on the right, reportedly poured $76 million of his personal holdings into his NextGen Climate Action PAC. Steyer’s political action committee is on top of another $20-$30 million raised and spent by conventional environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the League of Conservation Voters, according to a memo obtained by the Washington Post.

LCV’s Gene Karpinski told the newspaper, “This is by far the biggest investment that the environmental community has ever made in politics,” and said his group was on pace to spend $25 million this year, compared to $15 million in 2012. EDF spent about $4 million in the 2014 cycle.

The environmentalists focused on what some have called the “Steyer Seven,” Democrats in Senate and governors’ races he selected for his financial investments: Jean Shaheen in New Hampshire (Senate), Gary Peters in Michigan (Senate), Michael Michaud in Maine (Governor), Mark Udall in Colorado (Senate), Bruce Braley in Iowa (Senate), Mark Begich in Alaska (Senate), and Kay Hagen in North Carolina (Senate).  In most of those races, the environmentalists bought television ads slamming Republicans for skepticism about global warming.

How well did Steyer and the environmentalists do last Tuesday? Only Shaheen and Peters won. Michaud, Udall, Braley, Begich, and Hagan all went down to defeat. Republicans captured control of the U.S. Senate and it is virtually certain that Sen. Mitch McConnell, a coal-state Kentucky Republican, will be the new Senate majority leader. The GOP widened its House majority and easily defended and picked up governorships.

In an analysis just days before the election, the Washington Times asked how the issues the greens raised were playing in the states they targeted, particularly the climate debate. “There hasn’t really been a peep about it,” said analyst Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics. “I’ve seen no coverage of it in the media whatsoever, no mention of it.” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said climate change has played no role in the Colorado contest and “does not appear to be moving the election in any significant way. It’s at the bottom of issues lists.”

In Maine, the newspaper noted, the climate issue is linked to the spread of wind farms, which are not popular in the state. Many view windmills as degrading a pristine environment, Bangor Daily News political analyst and columnist Phil Harriman said. “To inject climate change would not be effective.”

Speculating before the election, the New Yorker magazine’s Elizabeth Kolbert said that a failure for Steyer and the environmental groups “would clearly be a big defeat. It would suggest that denying there’s a problem is not a liability, and that not even a lot of money on the other side can change the political calculus. To say that this outcome would dangerously set back the cause of acting on climate change is simply to state the obvious.”

As the results of the election became clear, the online magazine Slate tweeted: “The biggest spender of the 2014 campaign is also its biggest loser.”