How the Left Stopped One of Its Favorite Billionaires From Running for Senate

They loved Tom Steyer when he was like their very own Koch brother—but when he pondered a challenge to one of their favorites, they turned up their noses.

San Francisco activist Tom Steyer discusses his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 20, 2013.

Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

Tom Steyer’s decision to pass on California’s 2016 race gave Democrats a moment of quiet bliss. If you paid close attention to what Democrats said about Steyer in election season, you might have been surprised by this. Last year, Steyer spent $57 million of his hedge fund fortune to elect Democrats to the Senate. It didn’t always work–indeed, it made Steyer infamous on the right, a sort of Bizarro Koch brother – but the sacrifices won him the respect of greens and progressives. His NextGen Climate Action had spent money where Democrats were strapped. In the post-Citizens United world, they had their own rich guy.

“You made climate part of this election, and we thank you for that,” former “climate czar” Carol Browner told Steyer at a post-election meeting of the Center for American Progress.

“Tom Steyer has one interest politically, to recognize that climate change is here and we have to do something about it,” said Nevada Senator Harry Reid to a friendly reporter.

That was before California Senator Barbara Boxer retired and Kamala Harris, California’s African-Asian-American attorney general, who’s been a longtime progressive hope announced a campaign for her seat. Shortly thereafter, the 57-year old Steyer put out feelers for his own run—but the biggest enthusiasm for Steyer has come from the gleeful right. The Wall Street Journal welcomed Steyer into politics with sarcasm-dripping headline “Run, Tom, Run.” Phil Kerpen, a conservative strategist whose 2014 trolling of Steyer included crafting an attack ad for a MoveOn contest, started promoting a Steyer bid.

“NextGen spent tens of millions of dollars against me,” said Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican freshman who won one of 2014’s closest races. “I hope Tom Steyer stops hiding behind his money and puts himself on the front line.”

Democrats didn’t. Progressive media welcomed the Steyer decision with something between queasiness and dread, like finding the right words to tell a child not to throw the ball near that sparking electrical fence. Even in a bad year, $57 million spread across the country helped a lot of Democrats. Fifty-seven million dollars in a safe blue state’s Senate race would have helped, at most, Tom Steyer.

“Steyer shouldn't abandon his 2014 strategy in favor of personal ambition,” wrote the New Republic’s Rebecca Leber. In 2014, despite the losses, “Green groups pushed Democratic candidates in a more hawkish direction and GOP candidates to waver on their conservative positions.”

In Salon, Luke Brinker warned that Steyer was too old, too strongly branded on the environmental left, to make the jump onto the ballot. A self-funding tycoon candidate would just burn the resources of the many non-white, young Democrats who’ve been waiting for statewide office. “They would also vault into contention as potential national candidates in 2020 or 2024, whereas nobody takes the notion of a President Steyer seriously.”

Neither did Steyer, which doesn’t exactly solve that problem. When he started looking at the race, Steyer let it be known, through aides and memos, that he’d serve one term if he couldn’t get his agenda through the Senate. If carbon dioxide output wasn’t decreasing, if tax loopholes hadn’t been closed, he’d be out in 2022. His pre-campaign network was even called Team Cincinnatus, named for the dictator of the early Roman Republic who willingly gave back power as soon as his job was done.

“This is some seriously groany stuff,” tweeted the election-watching bloggers at Daily Kos.

What made Democrats nervous, beyond the prospect of money being burnt in a safe blue state, is that the right’s moguls have usually figured out how to wield influence without running for office. In 1980, David Koch used a few million dollars to build a Libertarian Party campaign for vice president. He didn’t win; he never ran again. Instead, his money was poured into think tanks and activist networks. Republicans even benefitted from mini-Kochs in the states, people like Missouri’s Rex Sinquefield and North Carolina’s Art Pope. After Michigan’s Amway heir Dick DeVos ran a losing 2006 campaign for governor of Michigan, he rediscovered his calling as a donor and influencer. In 2012, after years of conservative pressure and well-funded Republican wins, Michigan became a right-to-work state.

For two nervous weeks, it didn’t seem like he had learned that lesson. Steyer, who’s insisted that his 2014 spending changed the climate debate (“you can’t get elected as a science denier”), had consultants bending his ear and explaining why this time is different. “Unlike other wealthy and mainly self-funded candidates in the past, Tom Steyer possesses a very sound foundation among the voters in terms of the issues, and political and charitable activities that provide his motivation for running,” wrote strategists in the “Cinncinatus” memo. “That is a huge asset for him going forward.”

 The day before Steyer bowed out, Steyer strategist Chris Lehane argued that a Senate campaign could have only helped the left. “NextGen is going to do what NextGen has been doing,” explained Lehane. “The reason why the Senate race is of interest is the ability to do both; to be in the Senate if you’re lucky enough, but also to have a significant platform that is well resourced. This doesn’t make sense unless you’re doing both. Someone like Rand Paul on the right is both a senator and has a significant platform. The left has a lot of folks who are effective leaders, but lack ability to put in place a big agenda.”

Progressives were befuddled. They were there when Elizabeth Warren ran for Senate and built a $42 million war chest; they’d been there as Warren made Republican bank reforms and Obama Treasury nominees instantly infamous. There was no such campaign to draft Steyer into politics, and save the Senate.

Instead, there was unfailing politeness. “I believe we need good people in the Senate,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, of which Steyer is on the board of directors. “I definitely don’t discourage people from running. Obviously I’m not endorsing any candidates, but he’d make a great contribution to the debate. He’s very facile on a whole series of issues beyond climate; his electoral investments seem to be not just in winning some elections but on growing the grassroots.”

Instead of anyone shouting down, there was a steady hum of progressives saying that Kamala Harris was a fine, fine candidate. On January 13, Harris made her bid official. That same day, Steyer published a Huffington Post column about “shaking up” Washington. “Holding office is a sacred trust in our society,” he wrote, “and I am honored that so many colleagues and friends have encouraged me to consider entering this race.”

One day later, with few other Democrats close to the starting line, Elizabeth Warren endorsed Harris. Eight days later, the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America–which is part of a coalition coaxing Warren to run for president–released a poll conducted with the California-based progressive Courage Campaign. Unscientific, conducted of the members who’d clicked through online in the week after Harris’s announcement, it found that 64.5 percent of California DFA/Courage voters wanted Harris to be the Democratic nominee. The rest of the vote scattered between some lesser-known Democrats. Tom Steyer got 2.7 percent of it.

Not that the poll was designed to tell Steyer anything, in particular. “The poll was not designed in any way to suggest that candidates shouldn’t enter the race,” said DFA spokesman Neil Sroka. “It was a chance to take the pulse of progressives. Harris was the candidate most people had heard about, but in a perfect world nobody would have entered the race yet.”

On Thursday, Steyer pre-emptively quit the race. The world looked a little more perfect. Still, a source close to Steyer emphasized that he made this call only after seeing President Obama’s sixth State of the Union speech, and being convinced that the climate change cause was winning. Steyer did not doubt that there was a path to victory. And he did not rule out some other bid for office. In 2018, when both the governor’s mansion and another Senate seat are expected to open, progressives might have to relive the last two weeks, with a different climax.

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