In midterms, a battle of billionaires

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The midterm elections are shaping up as the battle of the billionaires.

In one corner are Charles and David Koch, the prominent conservative donors who made their fortunes in the fossil-fuel industry. They are pouring tens of millions of dollars into ad campaigns aimed at helping the GOP take back the Senate.

In the other corner is a newcomer, Tom Steyer, who has vowed to push the issue of climate change relentlessly to the forefront of American politics — even though his allegiance to the Democrats is more equivocal than that of the Kochs to the GOP.

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Steyer and the Kochs are both digging deep into their personal fortunes to try and influence the outcome of the elections, in what historians say is a political throwback to the Gilded Age.

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager turned environmental activist, made waves when he announced in February that he would funnel at least $100 million to make climate change the top issue in the 2014 midterms – a sum that includes $50 million of his own money and $50 million from donors.

The Koch-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has spent at least $30 million since August targeting vulnerable House and Senate Democrats up for reelection this year. AFP has not indicated how much it is willing to spend in total this cycle.

Steyer is seeking to turn 2014 into an election cycle unlike all others. The battle will likely come down to a handful of crucial seats that Democrats must hold onto if they want to maintain control of the Senate. Yet Steyer is the embodiment of a new kind of outside player that Democrats cannot quite figure out. His support is simultaneously firm and adorned with caveats.

"We aren't going to go in to try to undermine and hurt Democrats; this isn't a cannibalistic approach," Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who advises Steyer, told The Hill.

But Steyer is not going to throw money behind someone just because they are a Democrat either, Lehane added. Instead, he will simply stay away from the race and help only where the criteria he is looking for are met.

The Koch brothers have involved themselves in elections for years, writing off checks to push core conservative values and policies that drive the oil and gas industry. Their supporters argue that their influence is one reason the United States is experiencing an energy renaissance, with crude oil production surpassing imports for the first time in nearly 20 years.

AFP has already run ads targeting three vulnerable Senate Democrats on carbon taxes this cycle: Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.).

“Carbon taxes are bad for American industry and jobs,” AFP President Tim Phillips said in a statement last June when the group spent $175,000 on a month-long online effort pressing the Democrats on the issue.

“They drive up utility bills and the cost of gasoline for American families and businesses, all while hurting job growth and driving business overseas," Phillips added.

But the fairness of at least some of the ads is open to question. In recent weeks, AFP ran ads in Alaska hitting Begich again for being "on record supporting a carbon tax" for the nation's biggest polluters.

The claim has been disputed both by the Begich campaign and by purportedly independent fact-checking organizations. In an interview with The Hill last summer, Begich expressed skepticism about taxing carbon emissions.

Begich is a top energy Democrat, who sides with his Republican colleague from Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, more often than his party on energy issues. (His support for the Keystone XL pipeline is one example.) Still, AFP wants Begich ousted along with other vulnerable Democrats.

Steyer, for his part, won't back Begich — but he won't hurt him either.

According to Lehane, the same goes for the vulnerable pro-energy Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), who has come out in favor of Keystone XL, crude oil exports, and offshore energy revenue sharing.

But the picture in Landrieu’s case is complicated. Steyer's super-PAC, NextGen Climate Action, launched in 2013, is currently taking a poll among its online community over which lawmaker it should run a negative ad about, hitting the candidate’s ties to the "carbon-intensive" Keystone XL pipeline.

Landrieu is one of five candidates who may be chosen as the target. That, in itself, is the kind of gambit that illuminates why there is some underlying confusion among Democrats over Steyer’s intentions.

"The Kochs are spending an enormous amount of money on Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska, and I'm not sure Democrats have benefited enough in those states by toeing the fossil-fuel line," Lehane said. "The type of candidate we are willing to get behind is someone who is willing to take on the fossil-fuel industry."

Democratic Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire may be more to Steyer’s liking. The two face possible tough reelection bids this year as substantial Republican candidates test the waters in those states.

Both senators joined roughly 30 other Democrats on the Senate floor last week for an all-night climate change talkathon, and both had dinner with Steyer last month in his California home.

Steyer wouldn't say on a call with reporters Thursday if he will back Udall in Colorado, but Lehane’s explanation of the criteria driving the billionaire's decision-making would appear to make it more likely than not. There are three broad measures that a race has to meet before Steyer weighs in, according to the strategist.

"Climate has to be on the ballot — that means a Democrat that embraces the issue," Lehane said, adding that a commitment would also only be made in "states that are important and have a potential larger role and impact the presidential campaign in 2016."

Those states would ideally also be ones "that determine who wins and who loses control of the Senate," he added. 

The Colorado and New Hampshire Senate races meet those criteria.

"What he's really looking for is an exercise in social change," Lehane said, adding that Steyer wants opposition to climate change to hurt Republicans, in a similar way to how the GOP’s stance on immigration is perceived by many to have hurt it in 2012.

"Once you demonstrate that [climate change] is an effective wedge, demonstrate that this is costing Republicans in an election, then we can have serious discussions," Lehane said. "We need to have the political change to then manifest in policy."

Climate change might look unlikely to be the single dominant issue in an election where debates over healthcare will loom large.

But the money being pumped in by AFP and Steyer should ensure that the environmental battle gets at least its fair share of attention within the larger war.