Tom Steyer, the billionaire and former hedge funder, is the self-described Mayor Mike Bloomberg of the modern environmental movement. At a time when a string of political defeats has demoralized and beaten down environmental activists, Steyer has offered up his bank account as their savior, and lavished gobs of money on green ballot initiatives and environmentally-friendly candidates.
But is he actually any good at spending money?
Politico is reporting today that Steyer’s next big undertaking is to help Terry McAuliffe defeat Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race. He’s ordered up television ads in the Commonwealth’s pricey media markets and plans to finance an extensive voter turnout machine. But before too many Republicans go crying “war on coal,” it’s worth remembering how bumbling Steyer’s electioneering has been in the past. Take the March Massachusetts special election between Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch, where Steyer spent nearly $300,000 on ads attacking Lynch for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline; just before the election, he also sent an open letter to Lynch demanding he drop his support for the pipeline by “high noon”. In the parochial context of the election, it all felt laughably out of place. The Boston Globe dinged Steyer for his ham-handed ways, and by the end of the race, even Markey was insisting that Steyer take his largesse elsewhere.
His efforts don’t necessarily look more promising now that he’s inserted himself into the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli contest. Yes, there is a certain logic to targeting Cuccinelli—to Steyer, an “environmentalist’s nightmare”—for destruction. As attorney general, Cuccinelli led a scandalous crusade to prove that University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann had fabricated evidence for climate change. Numerous academic panels cleared Mann of any wrongdoing, and the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately found Cuccinelli in the wrong for prosecuting him in the first place. The potential damage Cuccinelli could do as governor of Virginia, with its thousands of miles of shoreline already endangered by rising sea levels and Republican inaction, is hard to exaggerate.
But Steyer isn’t concerned with all that; he has set out to accomplish something at the national scale through this election. According to Politico, “The bet, for Steyer, is that making climate issues a prominent part of the Virginia election will nudge the center of national politics in a greener direction, shaping the political landscape for 2014 and 2016 and giving environmental interests a stronger hand to play in Washington policy debates.”
Call me skeptical. There are plenty of reasons to make it rain in Virginia’s off-off-election-year governor’s race. It’s a close contest in a populous state, the candidates are ideological day and night, and hey, for the billionaire itching to open his billfold, this race offers the best chance to actually do something already until far-away 2014. But it’s foolishness to think that ensconcing McAuliffe in Richmond is going to strengthen the environmental lobby in Washington—where the power to do something about climate change remains in the hands of incumbent coal state Democrats and centrist Republicans. These individuals have nothing to fear, so far, from Steyer. In fact, count Steyer skeptical, since he doesn’t seem to know what it is that McAuliffe would do for the environment, or the “political landscape” around it, were he elected. Here’s the most specific assessment of McAuliffe he could muster: “I think he’s pretty much a business Democrat. I hope it’s what Virginia wants. I’m a business Democrat.”
It is also not clear that Steyer’s dollars are necessary to defeat Cuccinelli; as of mid-July, McAuliffe’s campaign has raised about twice Cuccinelli’s $1.1 million. For Steyer’s money to make an impact on a race already slathered in cash—and he hasn’t made clear how much he plans to spend—he will have to dole it out with a lot of forethought. If watching Karl Rove waste dump trucks of money on 2012’s down ballot races taught us anything, it’s that precision counts more than volume in electoral spending. Steyer has done little to evince any prowess for precision spending. (Markey, when Steyer was spending unwanted thousands to support him, had never been behind in the polls.)
Of course, money can also buy expertise. And maybe Steyer will assemble a team that can apportion his money wisely on behalf of this mysterious McAuliffe fellow. Steyer, after all, has a better batting average when it comes to single-issue ballot initiatives—last year, he spent $30 million on a California proposition to raise taxes on multistate energy companies, which passed. He’s done a so-so job of juicing the waning Keystone XL protest movement through an online advertising campaign.
But race-specific strategy is only half of Steyer’s problem. By spending, at random, in races where there is no incumbent, and making no indication of how one earns his wrath or friendship, Steyer has managed to strike fear in the hearts of—who, exactly? Certainly not any sitting congressmen in Washington, and probably not any statewide officials, either. True, his gun rights analog has it easier; this Senate has taken a major vote on Bloomberg’s pet issue, whereas climate change hasn’t been on the Congressional agenda in a real way since 2010. It’s hard to punish incumbents when their last major offense occurred three years ago. But such is the challenge for the would-be green billionaire. Steyer is spending—badly—as if there is a Congressional battle over climate change brewing just over the horizon. There isn’t. And as long as he’s sending soldiers to an empty battlefield, he’s going to be wasting his money.
Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.