Billionaire Steyer Tries to Catch Up With Koch Brothers

Image: Billionaire Steyer Tries to Catch Up With Koch Brothers

Friday, 21 Feb 2014 09:10 AM

By Drew MacKenzie

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The battle of the billionaires is heating up as liberal benefactor Tom Steyer donates vast sums to Democratic causes as he attempts to fight off the massive fortune of the conservative Koch brothers in the showdown over the Senate, Politico reported.

But Steyer's pledge to spend $100 million on environmental issues in the 2014 elections may not be enough to turn things around when compared to the treasure trove that Charles and David Koch have amassed to put the Senate back in the hands of the GOP in November, according to Politico.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that Steyer's commitment to pushing climate change on the voters and his fierce opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline are not the issues that will win elections in 2014.

"The economy continues to be the top concern for a majority of the American people, and they're [Steyer's interest groups] going to want to focus the agenda solely on climate change?" said Manley.

"It's good to see people trying to compete with the Koch brothers and the other dark money outfits they're running, but as somebody who is focusing closely on the Senate, I'm not sure what Mr. Steyer is trying to do is going to help keep the Senate. I don't think he alone can compete with the Koch brothers and their like-minded interest groups."

Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for the petroleum industry-backed group Oil Sands Fact Check and a senior director at FTI Consulting, said that Steyer and his fledgling network of progressive political groups are unlikely to make a difference.

"This seems dedicated to a narrow political agenda," said Dempsey, a former GOP staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "It's going to be hard to gain any traction long term."

The Koch brothers, on the other hand, with their flagship organization Americans for Prosperity leading an extensive coalition of conservative political groups, have targeted  Democrats on a variety of issues, including Obamacare.

Americans for Prosperity has spent $25 million in the last six months alone on ads attacking Obamacare, which may have already made inroads to undermine vulnerable Democratic senators.

The influence of the Koch siblings, who make their money in petroleum refining, ranching, paper, minerals, and fertilizers, also extends to the issue-oriented American Energy Alliance, and Freedom Partners, a nonprofit that gave $236 million to conservative groups in 2012.

But Steyer's leading strategist Chris Lehane said that conservative groups splashed out millions of dollars in 2012 with the devastating result for them that Obama was re-elected and Democrats increased their edge to 55-45 in the Senate.

"One of the lessons that he took from that is if you're going to engage you have to engage in a very sophisticated way," Lehane told Politico. "You can't do a drive-by super PAC."

Steyer, 56, who founded one of the world's most successful hedge funds, has vowed to spend $50 million of his own money on his climate control cause, and  expects to match that figure with $50 million from other wealthy donors, according to Politico.

The retired investor will use the war chest of his super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, on a series of attack ads in the Senate, House, and gubernatorial races highlighting the problems of global warming and pushing for stricter controls on greenhouse gas emissions, an issue not favored by the GOP.

According to The New York Times, Steyer burst onto the political scene last year by spending $11 million to help Terry McAuliffe win the recent race for Virginia governor and by "intervening" in a Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts.

The differences between Steyer and the Koch brothers have become deeply personal in recent months with the liberal billionaire declaring in Men's Journal that David Koch is "taking the most incredible risk that I've ever seen someone take, of going down in history as just an evil — just a famously evil — person."

Thomas Pyle, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries who now heads the Koch-linked linked Institute for Energy Research, hit back at Steyer, telling Politico, "It is not unnoticed that there's a lot of hypocrisy in the Democratic ranks about this notion that people are trying to buy the process.

"In his desire to create a pool of investors in his issues, he's going after folks who are seeking to profit handsomely off the destruction of these energy jobs in the coal, natural gas and oil sectors."

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