Tom Steyer’s Climate Fight Marches On, But Will Young People Follow?

Tom Steyer is in the climate fight for the long haul. His NextGen Climate is emphasizing people power in 2016, raising the question—will young people rally behind a billionaire donor? 

One popular, but far oversimplified narrative after the 2014 election was that environmentalists like Thomas Steyer poured in million to try to sway the midterms and were shot down. A swing and a miss. After all, Steyer did spend some $74 million of his own money, and won only three of seven priority races in what was an unequivocal bloodbath for Democrats. 

But environmentalists are optimistic losers, and Steyer was true to form, maintaining that they had begun to shape the conversation, and that his 2014 push was only the beginning. That’s one thing I’ve always liked about Steyer as a donor. He’s more patient and multifaceted than people gave him credit for in 2014.

Far from a rich dilettante hastily cutting checks, we’ve covered at length how Steyer and wife Kat Taylor are all in on this stuff. They’ve given several million to energy research and policy at Stanford, launched a Climate Disaster Relief Fund, backed business organizing alongside Mike Bloomberg, and even operate a sustainable ranch in Northern California. 

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As Steyer pointed out in the aftermath of 2014, winning on climate isn’t something that happens in one political horse race, or something that any one donor can really accomplish. NextGen is “not a drive-by super PAC,” he told Time. “We’re going to build political assets, we’re going to build an organization…”

He demonstrated that this week, unveiling a $25 million voter registration and mobilization drive to get young people to support presidential and congressional candidates committed to taking on climate change. 

It looks to be at least somewhat of a shift in strategy. NextGen did field work in 2014, but it also spent $19 million on political ads. At least for now, this effort seems to have much more of a field organizing focus, now training teams to deploy in at least 203 college campuses in seven, mostly swing states. 

If we must live in a super PAC world, organizing masses of young people to vote behind an issue they clearly care about, according to polling, is certainly a better use of money than lowest common denominator TV ads running ad infinitum. 

The other thing that’s positive about Steyer’s approach is the transparency behind it. One point that came up a lot in 2014 is that it was Steyer vs. Koch for the fate of the country. It’s a false comparison, for one, because the Kochs actually channel hundreds of millions through a network of several groups that don’t disclose their donors. The brothers only recently started publicly acknowledging the influence they have.

NextGen, on the other hand, discloses its donors, and Steyer is highly public about his donations and role in the organization. He’s both prominent funder and spokesman.  

Which raises two additional questions: 

First, when is this guy running for office? Second, can a hedge fund billionaire, even a charismatic liberal one, become a leader rallying young activists? 

This is the weird kind of thing we get in our new Gilded Age, not to mention bizarre political climate: a liberal billionaire organizing millennials using Snapchat ads, concerts, and brewery tours. Will it work?

Yes, young voters have helped shape the Democratic primary, but it’s not clear that the surge of Bernie Sanders supporters, who celebrate their $27 donations, will heed Steyer’s call to vote for Hillary Clinton (NextGen hasn’t endorsed yet, but come on). Right now, it’s actually kind of hard to imagine them voting for anyone but Sanders.

It calls to mind Jamelle Bouie’s analysis of Sanders voters, and how they are not a movement, but could be if they don’t let their enthusiasm fizzle out, and decide to join the long, boring game of political change. 

Steyer is betting they will.