Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer is moving hard towards a bid to replace one of the Senate’s staunchest green champions, retiring Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFormer California senator prods Feinstein to consider retirement Trump decries 'defund the police' after Boxer attacked Former Sen. Barbara Boxer attacked in California MORE (D-Calif.).
Steyer has been working the phones to gauge interest in a campaign since Boxer’s announcement Thursday. He’s been in contact with the California strategists and backers who he worked with to push through two state initiatives, as well as allies in labor and the statehouse.
He’s weighing how to keep his super-PAC, NextGen Climate, alive and active during a run. And he’s been poring through recent polling testing his profile, numbers his allies say indicate he could do well.
A source close to Steyer says he’s likely to make a decision very soon.
“The dude will make a decision over next few days or so,” said the Steyer ally. “He is focused on ways to both do a race and continue Next Gen — the idea being that a combination could really help support a strong progressive platform.”
Steyer would enter the race as a major player given his ability to self-fund — he’s routinely dropped tens of millions of dollars into state initiatives before, and spent roughly $70 million total during the 2014 elections. He’s also built up close ties to some key California Democrats in recent election cycles from his investment in statehouse races and ballot measures.
But the environmentalist would still be likely to face a tough race against other high-profile Democrats — one that could cost him upwards of $100 million. California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) are both taking a look at a bid, as is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) and a bevy of lesser-known Democratic candidates.
“I've worked with Tom over a number of years on different issues… He's very credible on a wide range of issues that are important to the public,” former Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “That's true of Gavin and Kamala as well. That's what's going to make this such an interesting race… We're very fortunate, we have a very large stable of talent whose public records are really compatible with California and the electorate here.”
Money would likely be Steyer’s biggest advantage in the race. While he can write a check, others would have to scramble to raise as much as $1 million a week from now until Election Day to keep up.
It costs a minimum of $10 million for just one month’s worth of decent statewide TV ads, and even candidates with national backgrounds and fundraising networks will be hard-pressed to match him on the airwaves.
That could be a big edge in what may turn into one of the most expensive statewide races in history. California has long been one of the nation’s most costliest campaign states. But now, with the advent of super-PACs and creation of California’s unusual primary system—where the top two candidates advance through the June primary regardless of party and everyone has to spend heavily in both rounds — the race could shatter spending records.
But that doesn’t mean Steyer can buy a Senate seat. Plenty of self-funding candidates have flamed out in California in recent years despite big spending — former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R) dropped close to $150 million in 2010 only to lose by a double-digit margin.
And while Steyer is beloved by many environmental activists and has developed ties with California’s labor groups, other Democrats who are eying campaigns share similar policy views.
“He's a very impressive guy, thoughtful, smart… He's so associated with the climate issue, many environmentalists would be happy to see him running. But I'd also imagine that Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Mayor Villaraigosa, my guess is any meaningful Democrat from California is going to have some pretty good environmental positions even if they're not as upfront,” James Golin, a major Democratic and environmental donor who knows Steyer.
Steyer has also received some criticism from the left for bad tactical decisions in past campaigns, though others say he’s shown a remarkable ability to learn quickly and adapt. Others point out that he took heat last cycle for having past investments in coal and other fossil fuels.
Some Democrats are already privately questioning how he’ll fare in a statewide race.
“How many times have we seen the rich guy flame out here? Generally speaking it's been Republican candidates, but it hasn't worked,” said one plugged-in California Democrat who isn’t tied to any potential candidate. “You have the same guy who's trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions who's funded all these coal-mining operations around the world. He's certainly trying to establish his bona fides but I think it's too quick for him. But billionaires, they operate in their own little bubble and everyone around them tells them exactly what they want to hear.”
It’s even unclear whether the national groups who he worked so closely with in past cycles will back him, given the potentially crowded Democratic field. None of the major environmental groups would say whether or not they’d support Steyer.
“There are a lot of great options in California, which isn’t a huge surprise since the state has shown such wonderful leadership on environmental issues,” said National Resources Defense Council Action Fund director Heather Taylor-Miesle when asked about how Steyer stacked up against the other potential candidates, before saying it was too early to comment on anyone directly.
Steyer’s allies seem aware that environmental issues alone won’t catapult him into office. They’re already highlighting his decision to leave the investing world in order to focus on philanthropy, along with his plans to give his entire fortune away before his death, as personal selling points.
But his financial assets will clearly play a role on the campaign trail. And they may not be just a benefit.
“It's a two-edged sword, being able to self-fund. It creates a terrific benefit but also creates some problems,” said Golin. “And as the previous billionaires showed, there's a risk of appearing out of touch with the average Californian."