Dan Morain

Billionaire climate activist undaunted after losses in Tuesday’s election

Tom Steyer spent $65 million this election on candidates who support the need to deal with climate change.
Tom Steyer spent $65 million this election on candidates who support the need to deal with climate change. AP

Shortly after winning a U.S. Senate seat in South Dakota last week, Republican Mike Rounds declared there would be “enough votes to actually get the Keystone XL pipeline released from captivity.”

Sen. John Hoeven, his Republican neighbor from the other Dakota, chimed in: “I think we have the 60 votes we need to approve it.”

In the newly reconstituted Senate, James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, is in line to replace our own Barbara Boxer as chair of the committee that oversees environmental legislation. Inhofe wrote the fascinating book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

Billionaire Tom Steyer, the environmentalists’ answer to the Koch brothers, called from his office in San Francisco last week, having analyzed results of his first serious foray into national campaigns.

“Honestly, I think we had a much, much better 2014 than people are giving us credit for,” Steyer said.

Come again?

Yes, his candidates won in three states where his NextGen Climate political action committee spent $12.2 million: Democrat Gary Peters won a Senate seat in Michigan; Tom Wolf defeated Republican incumbent Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania; and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen beat her Republican challenger in New Hampshire.

But what about Florida, threatened by sea-level rise? Steyer, the retired hedge-fund founder-turned-climate activist, spent $17 million to elect Democrat Charlie Crist governor. Crist lost to Republican incumbent Rick Scott, who has said he isn’t convinced “there’s any man-made climate change.”

Steyer spent $8.5 million in Colorado, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall lost to Republican Cory Gardner, who also had said he doesn’t believe people are the cause of climate change.

Steyer spent $11 million in Iowa. The result: Joni “Make ’Em Squeal” Ernst is that state’s new senator. The earthy Republican aired a 30-second commercial in which she smiles as she recalls castrating hogs on her family farm, and promises to happily cut pork in Washington. A wealthy San Francisco enviro fretting about how the Keystone pipeline would worsen climate change never will beat an Iowa politician who can talk about separating hogs from their equipment.

In Maine, Steyer spent $2 million. The upshot: Conservative Republican Paul LePage is that state’s governor. He has said that climate change is not a threat and, to the contrary, could offer Maine opportunities.

And in Washington state, Steyer spent $1.4 million to help Democrats take control of the Senate. Republicans apparently maintained a majority, though votes remain to be counted.

“I’m much more than undaunted. Undaunted doesn’t begin to measure what I am,” Steyer said.

As he sees it, the $65 million he spent this year placed climate on the agenda, and his budding political operation identified voters in battleground presidential states who are committed to voting for the candidate who most supports the need to deal with climate change.

“Anyone who thought this was going to happen without a struggle is naive,” he said, pledging to remain involved in 2016 and beyond.

Steyer dabbled in California in this election, giving $77,000 to Jerry Brown, and $200,000 to the California Democratic Party. Perhaps he didn’t see the need to get more deeply involved.

On the day after winning a fourth term, Brown was the anti-Mitch McConnell, who, along with other U.S. Senate Republicans, was preparing to dismantle President Barack Obama’s climate policies.

“We’ve seen what the drought does,” Brown said in his Capitol office. “We’ve seen extreme weather events. The fire budget is way overspent. This is serious stuff. The fact that there are some politicians who put their head in the sand will not stop the growing awareness that the world has to do something.”

Environmentalists remain ambitious in Sacramento. There will be a push to extend AB 32, the landmark legislation that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Steyer hopes to persuade the Legislature to pass an oil severance tax. He also wants to limit fracking, though Santa Barbara County voters rejected an anti-fracking measure last week. He might be taking his home state for granted. He shouldn’t.

California is a long way from the Bakken oil fields. But as oil companies know, we do love our internal combustion engines, and we can’t fuel them with clean-air credits.

In this election, Chevron and the California Independent Petroleum Association gave Brown’s campaigns $181,000, and lubricated no fewer than 89 of the 120 incoming and incumbent legislators with no less than $614,000 in direct donations.

Several legislators owe their victories to free-spending independent campaigns funded by oil companies and their allies in the business world. Chevron and Texas oil companies Occidental Petroleum and Tesoro gave $1.375 million to one such entity, Coalition to Restore the Middle Class. The coalition spent its money to elect two Republican state Senate candidates, Andy Vidak of the Bakersfield area and Janet Nguyen of Orange County, and two Democrats to the Assembly, Rudy Salas of Bakersfield and Sacramento’s Jim Cooper.

California legislators would never be so environmentally incorrect to deny climate change. They might not even support the Keystone pipeline. But when bills come up for votes, oil industry lobbyists might drop by to collect on debts. Steyer’s people might show up, too. That’d present a dilemma.

Legislators who don’t vote correctly might end up squealing in the next election like one of those hapless hogs that Sen.-elect Ernst remembers so fondly.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.