The biggest donor in American politics is in Pittsburgh taking a tour of one of the many campaign offices his organization has set up across the country. On a calendar on the wall, Election Day is highlighted in yellow and circled. “LET’S SAVE THE WORLD!” is written there in black permanent ink. The office space has the feel of a Hillary Clinton campaign office: the odors of stale pizza and sweat waft through the air, half-full bottles of soda are scattered around, anti-Trump beer koozies and pins abound. Field directors, fellows, organizers, and volunteer captains buzz about discussing voter registration forms.
This is a critical city for Democrats in the swing state of Pennsylvania. But none of this organization’s 36 field offices and 600 staffers and tremendous organizing power nationwide are dedicated to any candidate on the ballot in 2016, including Hillary Clinton. These are the campaign offices of a super PAC almost singlehandedly created and funded by billionaire Tom Steyer to organize the country around a single issue: climate change.
Over the past four years Steyer has spent at least $140 million of his own money on national politics, more than anyone else in the country, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. But it’s the way he’s spent the money that has Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic politicians so frustrated. Instead of giving most of his millions directly to the party and its candidates, Steyer set up his own campaign operation that allows him to pick and choose which Democrats fit his climate agenda. A disproportionate amount of Steyer’s attention and money is spent on California, already one of the most progressive states in the country.
“Climate is the Candidate,” reads some of NextGen Climate’s campaign swag. But both inside and outside NextGen, it’s becoming clear there’s a candidate other than climate: the donor himself. The former hedge fund manager is spending millions to run two overlapping campaigns, one for a cause and the other for his own political future.
“NextGen is also known as the ‘Tom Steyer for Governor Exploratory Committee,’” the super PAC’s former digital director Jesse Thomas told us last spring, referring to California’s open governor race in 2018. In an interview with VICE News, Steyer didn’t deny his gubernatorial ambitions, and some of Steyer’s biggest devotees welcome his likely push for California’s governor office.
And Steyer allies aren’t shy about making high-minded historical comparisons. “He’s really embraced his inner Teddy Roosevelt,” said NextGen’s former chief strategist and veteran political consultant Chris Lehane, extending the comparison to yet another President Roosevelt. “Teddy was ready to get in the arena and fight powerful interests for what he believes in and take some shots. Teddy and really Franklin, too, was a traitor to his class. It’s unusual for people of Tom’s privilege and background to step in and lead on progressive issues.”
The 59-year-old Steyer doesn’t immediately strike you as a Rough Rider type. He eats hot dogs but without the carb-heavy bun, says things like “That’s a gas,” and works out on the elliptical. Self-aware — or at least projecting self-awareness — he jokes that some people wonder if he’s “just a crunchy nut from California.”
Watch the Nov. 3 VICE News Tonight segment on Tom Steyer on HBO:
“What we’ve really tried to do,” he explained in an interview with VICE News Tonight, “is engage Americans on the issues through a field campaign, which is enabling voter-to-voter conversations because we really didn’t set out to support a candidate; we set out to support values so that the voters could support a candidate.”
Rather than donating directly to candidates or their affiliated super PACs, Steyer has spent most of his cash creating his own campaign infrastructure that can then help climate-focused candidates for Senate, governor, and president. He gave $2,700 to Clinton in 2015 but hasn’t donated to her during the general election, and none of the $67.3 million he has spent this cycle has found its way to her super PAC. At the same time, he has spent tens of millions of dollars registering and organizing young voters in states she needs to win.
“If you want to do the same-old same-old politics, then, yes, you just give money,” explained Lehane. “Fundamentally, Tom’s thinking on this is that our political system often lags behind and that this is a way to accelerate it to confront the problem.” If you spend money organizing voters around the climate crisis and create a movement, the theory goes, then political action will follow. Electing Democrats is not enough.
In 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled 60 seats in the Senate but still did not have sufficient support to act on a landmark climate change bill passed in the House of Representatives. Since 1998 the oil and gas industry has spent $1.9 billion lobbying the federal government, the sixth-highest total of any industry. Oil and gas chipped in an additional $441 million in campaign funds to both parties in Washington over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Steyer felt that no matter how much money he put up before, “it would always be David versus Goliath.” So he opened his wallet for only particular races and select candidates. When some of the more moderate Democrats like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu were up for reelection in 2014, Steyer did not throw any of the $73 million he spent that cycle their way. “He didn’t affirmatively oppose her,” explained Lehane who worked at NextGen in 2014, “but he focused on other candidates.”
Steyer gave political cover and financial support to legislators he felt sure would work hard to confront the climate crisis. One such person NextGen points to is Democrat Kate McGinty who spent most of her career in environmental policy and is poised to become the next senator from Pennsylvania on Tuesday (although the polls are tight).
Even with the hefty investments in seven political races in 2014, only three of those candidates won. Some attributed that to Republicans winning across the country, but Steyer also changed his approach for 2016. “They realized there are limitations on what you can do with TV ads and publicity stunts,” says Galen Alexander, NextGen Climate’s press secretary. “Not a lot of people were talking to voters.”
For 2016, NextGen has instead poured millions into registering and organizing voters on the ground in swing states, specifically millennials who vote less consistently and have the most to lose from the consequences of climate change. “I think the best way to measure the effectiveness of a group is how many people they mobilize, and from that perspective NextGen is doing a fantastic job,” says Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “They are highly effective. They have a lot of enthusiasm. I see them everywhere I go.”
But Steyer’s my-way-or-the-highway approach in 2014 and 2016 has infuriated some senior Democrats. In hacked emails leaked online, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told Steyer he “didn’t expected to get fucked by you in the NYT” after Steyer told a New York Times reporter that candidates must commit to ambitious energy proposals, including 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. “That’s the hurdle candidates have to get over to win our support,” Steyer told the paper.
Podesta had recommended Steyer to be Secretary of Energy under Obama in 2008, but that didn’t stop him from lashing out further. “Thanks a lot for jumping us. I hope President Bush helps you reach your climate goals,” Podesta said, referring to then Republican front-runner Jeb Bush. “PS great picture,” he added at the end of the terse email.
It’s true that Steyer’s picture shows up a lot while campaigning for climate change. Bypassing the regular party infrastructure, Steyer appoints himself the messenger of the movement, often appearing in commercials, talking to the press, and hitting the campaign trail to register voters and give stump speeches. When trying to rally crowds, the former Yale soccer team captain has adopted the U.S. soccer team’s “I believe” chant as his own. In one ad attacking Donald Trump, Steyer speaks Spanish: “Todos somos Californianos” (We are all Californians).
Although California has already passed some of the most ambitious climate change legislation in the country, it occupies an enormous amount of NextGen Climate’s attention. The group boasts that its partners have registered over 1 million voters across the nation the last two years, 700,000 of them have been in California. Interviews with a half dozen former NextGen employees all said that Steyer’s focus on California has been unwavering since the super PAC’s inception.
If California becomes his sole focus with a run for governor in 2018, environmentalists expect that NextGen’s national work will continue — though he would likely have to separate himself from the super PAC’s day-to-day operations even if he continued funding it. “It’s speculation on top of speculation,” said Brune, “but our anticipation is that Tom and NextGen are in this for the long haul and him running wouldn’t curtail their engagement on trying to change the politics of climate.”
Such an arrangement of both political and donor power would have little precedent in America. The closest parallel is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who co-founded and funded Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006 while in office. But NextGen’s has more dough and California — the sixth-largest economy in the world by itself — could be a uniquely powerful combination.
In some ways, his climate change campaign has given him a political dry run before the wet work of running for office himself. “It’s really fun for me to get out and see how people react to what we’re saying,“ Steyer told VICE News Tonight. “I think you never really learn anything sitting in your office. The way that you learn things is by going out and meeting people directly. And hearing what they have to say, hearing what they care about, getting their take on the world, and being able to understand that a 360 [degree] dimension of them as a human being.”
In other words, Californians, get ready to see a lot more of Tom Steyer.
Nellie Bowles contributed reporting for this article.