Rumors circulated that former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer planned to run for California Senate seats in the past, and even for governor in 2018. But he may have found that he can make the biggest impact behind the scenes.
Since leaving Farallon Capital Management, the fund he founded in 1986, Steyer has spent much of his time as an activist raising awareness of climate change risks. But this year, he is leveraging the Super PAC he founded, NextGen Climate, in order to mobilize young voters for the November 2016 election.
If Steyer’s investment in young voters pays off, not only could Democrats have something to celebrate in November, but there would also be a more favorable political environment for advocacy groups and businesses that are committed to do their part to scale investments in clean-energy technologies and continue the Obama administration's work on climate change.
Earlier this week, NextGen Climate announced that it would fund a $25 million voter-registration drive to target millennials in seven battleground states. In a written statement, the Super PAC said the focus of this voter-registration drive is to get young voters out so they can have their say on climate justice. But looking at the seven states where these funds are targeted, it is clear that Steyer and NextGen Climate are striving to tip the balance in what could be yet another tight presidential race between presumed nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, while helping to flip the Senate to the Democrats:
Colorado: The Centennial State went to Barack Obama in the last two elections, George W. Bush the previous two, and is considered one of the most purple states. But despite Steyer pouring money into the state’s 2014 Senate race, Republican Cory Gardner edged out Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. As for this year’s Senate race, the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato has said it "leans Democrat” for incumbent Michael Bennett, but as 2016 has proven to be a crazy election year, anything can happen.
Illinois: Illinois is a longstanding Democratic stronghold, but political scandals in part helped Republican Sen. Mark Kirk take Obama’s former Senate seat in 2010. If the Democrats are going to take back the Senate, this is one seat that has to flip, and so far most pollsters view this race leaning Democrat as well.
Iowa: Republican incumbent Charles Grassley will coast to a seventh term in the Senate, but Iowa is always a close one in presidential races. Hog-castrating Joni Ernst narrowly won election to the Senate in 2014, but that was largely because her opponent, Bruce Braley, had a foot in his mouth more than on the ground. Steyer’s investment in that race failed to help Braley win, so at least this year, he wants to ensure Iowa does not go red in November.
Nevada: Retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has never been popular in his home state, and so far the race to succeed him has been a toss-up. Since the 1992 presidential race, Nevada has been a swing state, voting for the winner. But this year, the state’s relatively high unemployment rate, and the lingering effects of the foreclosure crisis, could make Nevada fertile ground for Trump.
New Hampshire: Long a Republican bastion, the state has turned purple since it helped launch Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992. The state is leaning toward Hillary this year, but in the Senate race, Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte is battling popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in what looks to be a toss-up.
Ohio: Watch for this state to score the most visits by the presidential candidates this cycle. Even if Trump wraps up the nomination after California’s June 7 primary, the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer could still give television viewers a gift that keeps on giving. The state’s Senate campaign could also become one of the most expensive in the country, with former Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost re-election to John Kasich in 2010, taking on incumbent Republican Rob Portman in what so far looks like a toss-up as well.
Pennsylvania: The Keystone State is always described as a battleground, but it has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the first Bush in 1988. Often described as 'Pittsburgh to the west, Philadelphia to the east, with Tennessee in between,' much of the state’s electorate is culturally and politically conservative. But while 2014 was a washout for Democrats, Tom Wolf was the only gubernatorial candidate to defeat a Republican incumbent, though to quote VEEP character Selina Meyer, a “bowl of hair” could have defeated the unpopular Tom Corbett in any state. But now Tea Party favorite Sen. Pat Toomey is on the ropes, and Katie McGinty, Wolf’s chief of staff, has a good shot at winning this race.
If the Democrats are going to take back the Senate, they would need at least four seats (if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential race, as the vice president would break a 50-50 tie), but six would put the chamber safely in the Democrats’ hands.
Millennials, if they vote, could make that happen: Estimates suggest the total number of potential millennial voters has almost tripled since 2008, to now over 50 million. Of course, the key word is IF. Younger Americans frequently move, confront voter-registration laws that are not always seamless and have a history of failing to go to the polls, so their numbers don't necessarily mean they can have an impact on this election.
Nevertheless, if millennials come out in record numbers, watch for a political shift in Washington, D.C. this fall — one that favors policies based on a low-carbon economy that will reject many of the ideas that will come out of the Tea Party-led House of Representatives. And watch for Steyer to be a leading contender to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown in California in 2018.
Image credit: Brown Political Review
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.