Tom Steyer spent $57 million to get voters to care about climate change. It didn’t work.

Tom Steyer Spent $57 Million to Get Voters to Care about Climate Change. It Didn’t Work.

Tom Steyer Spent $57 Million to Get Voters to Care about Climate Change. It Didn’t Work.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 3 2014 9:15 PM

How Green Was My Election

Tom Steyer spent $57 million to get voters to care about climate change. It didn’t work.

Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit.
Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on Aug. 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit 6.0

This election cycle’s biggest spender—at least among those who operate through the fully disclosed part of the political system, a.k.a. not the Koch brothers—is liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, who doled out at least $57 million of his own cash to try to get voters to care about climate change. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an environmental group, dumped another $25 million this year into the 2014 races, about $5 million more than it spent in 2010 and 2012 combined. All told, environmentalist organizations say they’ll pour $85 million into the midterms. As LCV president Gene Karpinski declared proudly to the Washington Post late last month, “This is by far the biggest investment that the environmental community has ever made in politics.”

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

What has all that green gotten these green groups? Not a whole heck of a lot.

Steyer and his like-minded allies opened their checkbooks with the hopes of making climate change a front-burner issue. But as the most expensive midterm election in American history wraps up, it’s clear that environmentalists will fall far short of that goal. A Pew Research Center poll from September found that the environment came in a distant eighth among a list of 11 campaign issues that matter most to voters.

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Look past national polling to individual Senate races, and the picture isn’t much prettier. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action super PAC has deployed the bulk of its resources to protect Democratic seats in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Colorado. Those races—along with gubernatorial contests in Florida and Maine, where the group is also spending heavily—share a common theme: a Democratic candidate who is, to varying degrees, climate conscious, and a Republican opponent who is anything but. We don’t know yet how those races will shake out, but regardless of the outcomes it will be difficult for anyone to make the case that climate was the decisive issue in any of them.

As my colleague John Dickerson has already explained, the one issue that’s resonated on the campaign trail this year is President Obama’s raging unpopularity. Drill down a little deeper into the Pew numbers, meanwhile, and you find an electorate that’s much more likely to pick a candidate based on the economy, Obamacare, and terrorism than her views on the environment. That’s something even greens have come to accept. Environmental groups have increased the scope of their attack ads so much that some don’t even mention climate change at all.

Such decisions reflect the reality that climate has yet to prove itself as a decisive issue on the campaign trail. The biggest ideological gap on the topic is arguably in Iowa, where Rep. Bruce Braley voted for the House’s cap-and-trade bill, and his opponent, Joni Ernst, wants to abolish the EPA all together. Braley entered the race as a moderate favorite but saw his early lead evaporate in the face of a surprisingly strong challenge from Ernst, a folksy state senator with an extremely conservative track record. NextGen and other green groups have spent more than $2.3 million airing more than 11,000 ads in the Hawkeye State trying to push Braley back on track, but Ernst continues to edge ahead in the polls. According to FiveThirtyEight, she’s a 70 percent favorite to win heading into Election Day. Republican Cory Gardner holds a similar lead over Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado’s climate-friendly incumbent. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has the lead in New Hampshire over GOP challenger Scott Brown, and Democrat Gary Peters is a massive favorite in Michigan over Republican Terri Lynn Land.

“We want 2014 to be a pivot year for climate—the year we can demonstrate that you can use climate change as a wedge issue to win in political races,” Chris Lehane, the veteran Democratic strategist behind Steyer’s super PAC, told reporters in May. Five months later, Lehane is looking for symbolic victories rather than electoral ones.

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In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle over the weekend, Lehane suggested the effort shouldn’t be judged on Election Day outcomes alone. He suggested that once Republicans recognize an issue is “problematic for them, that’s when you begin to get the whole paradigm to flip.” That, he said, is already happening with climate. As proof, he pointed to a handful of examples of conservative candidates touting something that kinda sorta resembles green bona fides. One such example: a small moment in one of the Iowa debates in which Ernst told voters, “I drive a hybrid car, and my family recycles everything.” The only reason that line is notable, though, is that Ernst has been unrelentingly hostile to climate science on the campaign trail. And it won’t matter what she drives if she gives the GOP the votes it needs to cut the EPA’s budget next year.

Muddling the money men’s message even more is the fact that these four Senate races are mostly about protecting what the climate crowd already has. All four seats are currently held by Democrats, either by incumbents running for re-election or retiring lawmakers they hope will be followed by Democratic successors. Even a vanishingly unlikely four-for-four sweep would represent, at best, something that looks like the status quo, which hasn’t exactly produced the type of victories that environmentalists dream about. Given the fact that, here in the real world, the GOP appears poised to take over control of the Senate, that status quo sounds positively dreamy to greens right now.

A Republican-led Senate would seriously damage the nation’s effort to combat climate change. Efforts to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases would likely be blocked by filibustering Democrats or a vetoing president, but such an attempt would put environmentalists on the defensive at a time when affirmative measures are needed. The GOP could also cut the agency’s funding and generally make things difficult by hauling EPA officials in front of Congress on a regular basis. As the Brookings Institution’s managing director William Antholis noted recently, every minor move could have major global repercussions at next year’s UN climate convention in Paris, where the Obama administration will try to convince international leaders that the United States is finally getting serious about combating man-made climate change.

It was always going to be an uphill battle for environmentalists. They face the same political headwinds that are making life difficult for liberals in general: an unpopular president and an unforgiving electoral map. Their realistic best-case scenario heading into Election Day was always going to be limiting Democratic losses.

Short-term setbacks aside, Steyer views his midterm-spending spree as a down payment on the future. He targeted the races he did because of their importance for 2014 and 2016—there’s a reason that both Iowa and New Hampshire are on the list. “Our feeling on 2014 is, we want to do things that are both substantively important and will have legs after that,” Steyer told the New York Times in February. “We don’t want to go someplace, win and move on.”

Now that winning seems out of the question, the bigger question Steyer and his court face is how to rally their deep-pocketed allies in the future. How can they convince wealthy benefactors to open up their checkbooks in 2016 and 2018 if they can’t produce anything resembling a victory in 2014?