- - Thursday, October 16, 2014


Billionaire mega-donor Tom Steyer is hedging his bets. Recently, Mr. Steyer backed out of a keynote speaker slot at the SXSW Eco conference. He had originally accepted the invitation to “outline his strategy to rewrite the political narrative on climate change for the 2014 midterm elections” — with a few glaring omissions, of course.

Once seen primarily as an environmental activist, he’s started distancing himself from his climate change agenda in favor of more partisan, electorally important issues. The climate change advocate, who made billions of dollars selling coal to China’s notoriously dirty power plants, is changing his colors again.

Earlier this year, Mr. Steyer kicked off a $100 million campaign and promised to support candidates opposing the Keystone XL pipeline while endorsing his program of environmental taxation and regulations. He gained short-term traction on halting construction of the proposed natural gas line, but his other initiatives have not worked out as well. For example, many cap-and-trade plans, oil extraction taxes, and carbon taxes have been non-starters. He has also run into a host of other problems that have stifled his progressive environmentalist crusade.

Some prominent Democrats refused to play ball and oppose gas pipelines. The billionaire promised to run ads against Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu owing to her support for Keystone XL, but unsurprisingly, those never materialized.

Last month, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, both Democrats with higher ambitions, beamed as they announced their states’ support of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The project will add billions of dollars to the two states’ economies, but the move also underscores the fact that organized labor still has regional sway over Mr. Steyer’s billions — or at least over the $900,000 he contributed to Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign.

Mr. Steyer’s ads have been universally panned for inaccuracy. Last February, an ad called “Sucker Punch — Keystone Truth” funded by Mr. Steyer’s Next Generation, claimed that building Keystone XL would only benefit China and not American workers. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker awarded it with four Pinocchios. China would invest $30 billion, but the entire Asian stake in production is about one-fourth of what the United States wouldd receive. While “hard-hitting,” the spot also relied on “jingoistic images.”

In August, Next Generation unveiled ads hitting Republican Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is fighting to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. While some ads mentioned climate change, others hit Mr. Gardner on his position on abortion. Next Generation spokeswoman Abby Leeper added that Mr. Gardner would “interfere on women’s health issues to the point where he would have made abortion a felony.” Mr. Steyer’s group also attacked the Republican for his position on same-sex marriage which, combined with climate change, and abortion, create linked “proof points” — banding together similar constituencies.”

Some have questioned if Mr. Steyer even has deep environmentalist principles. The Gardner campaign has repeatedly invoked connections between his former business interests with past proposals to drain aquifers used by Colorado farmers. As recently as 2008, Mr. Steyer interests sold coal to China’s virtually unregulated power plants.

Beyond inaccurate, the Steyer ads have struck experts and the public alike as “bizarre.” According to one expert, “These ads yell at people [and] they’re not believable. They’re not going to create a relationship between the viewer and the ad.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore points out that Mr. Steyer’s “political pay to play” could reap massive profits for his recent solar energy investments. In short, he is a flashier, wealthier, more radical, possibly erratic version of the same crony capitalists who make a living manipulating Beltway politics.

Tom Steyer’s one constant has remained his ability to change. He made his billions selling coal and draining wetlands, but when environmentalism came into vogue, he rode that issue while investing in green projects. As the ardor for environmentalism cools and the political climate heats up, will Mr. Steyer find another hobby horse issue, or completely transform into a simple political pugilist?

Jason Stverak is the president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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