San Francisco billionaire activist Tom Steyer is getting more deeply involved in Colorado politics than ever before. After spending more than $350,000 on research and polling in the Centennial State last year, two groups aligned with Steyer are now funding political attacks on State Senator Laura Woods (R). Republicans control the Colorado State Senate by a single vote, so unseating Woods could return control of the state legislature to Democrats and reinstate one-party rule under Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) until early 2019 at least.
After Complete Colorado first reported Steyer’s spending on Colorado research and polling ahead of the 2016 election, residents of State Senate District 19 stepped forward with a series of attack mailers they received from September to December last year. Among other things, the direct mail accuses Woods of being “completely out of touch with the needs of middle-class families” and siding with “the wealthy and big corporations.” The mailers were sent by Fairness for Colorado, which is funded by Conservation Colorado and a national activist group called America Votes, a self-described “permanent campaign” for “building progressive power.” Steyer has forged particularly close ties with Conservation Colorado since the 2014 election, and the billionaire’s political action committee NextGen Climate is a member of America Votes.
“I was born and raised in Colorado. I am shocked when I see rich out-of-staters try to buy the state I love so much,” said Woods, whose district includes the cities of Arvada and Westminster. “It’s just wrong.”
Steyer spent more than $8.5 million in 2014 in a failed effort to save former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D). This was part of a $74 million national campaign by the California billionaire to keep Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate, which also failed. According to Reuters, Steyer poured more money into the 2014 midterm elections “than any other single donor in both parties,” and his 2016 effort will “likely be larger.” The financial news agency further reports that Steyer may support U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist who is challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the left in this year’s Democratic presidential primary.
During the 2014 campaign, Steyer targeted state legislative contests and some races for governor as well. A significant share of Steyer’s money was donated directly to environmental groups, who then campaigned on behalf of the billionaire, most visibly in states like Washington and Oregon. Steyer also pioneered the strategy of using other issues besides the environment to criticize his opponents – the same approach used in the Fairness for Colorado mailers attacking Woods.
Conservation Colorado has hailed Steyer as a “visionary” and praised the retired hedge fund manager for getting involved in state legislative races to elect candidates who are loyal to environmental groups.
The environmental group even held an awards dinner in Steyer’s honor last year, where the California billionaire called the 2016 election “critical.” He also warned there is “even more at stake” this year than in 2014, when he poured millions of dollars into a botched effort to save Udall. But when the press sought details, he refused to answer questions about his 2016 plans in Colorado, including whether state lawmakers would be targeted, just as the billionaire activist has done in other states.
The emergence of a direct-mail campaign, funded by Steyer’s allies, strongly suggests that the state legislature will be part of the California billionaire’s political strategy for Colorado this year. This may come as a shock to some political observers, who have viewed Steyer as more of a player in the reelection effort of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D), the race for the White House and Colorado’s nine Electoral College votes, and possibly a statewide campaign over anti-fracking ballot measures.
In 2014, Steyer held talks with environmental activists about supporting anti-fracking ballot measures, but when those measures were abandoned, he focused his Colorado spending on the federal level in defense of Udall. Today, the California billionaire and environmental activist is delving much deeper into Colorado politics and, at the very least, his allies have control of the state legislature in their sights.
Steyer is free to support any cause or candidate he chooses, of course. And in a way, you can’t blame him for staying in the shadows and letting groups like Conservation Colorado and America Votes take the lead, after the personal humiliation he suffered two years ago. But if Steyer thinks he can parachute into Colorado politics once again, without anyone noticing this time, he’s got another thing coming.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org