Beautiful City

Why Colorado’s environmental battles aren’t the focus of the nation’s top Democratic donor in the 2018 election

Rich Pedroncelli, file, The Associated Press

He argued for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. He blasted the national Democratic Party’s electoral strategy. And he outlined his political network’s focus for the 2018 election.

But what Tom Steyer didn’t highlight in a recent trip to Denver is the most telling.

The billionaire climate activist is not focused on Colorado at this point — despite his big-spending history in state elections and the major environmental issues in this year’s campaign.

“I said at the beginning of this year: We are going to get asked to do a thousand things, literally. Should we do them all? Absolutely. If we do them all, are we going to suck at them all? Yes,” he said in a recent interview with The Denver Post at a downtown hotel. “So what we are really going to have to do is prioritize the most important things.”

The priority, Steyer said, is to help Democrats win control of the U.S House, and that’s where he’s directing resources through NextGen America and affiliated political organizations.

“We have to get control of something,” said Steyer, whose $16 million investment in the 2018 election makes him the nation’s top Democratic donor, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Colorado’s open governor’s race is barely on his radar. He considered a potential state ballot measure to limit oil and gas drilling, but he decided to pass. And he said he “loves” a lawsuit brought by Colorado communities against energy companies seeking damages for climate change, but he is not bankrolling the effort.

His lack of interest provides an opening for energy industry advocates and Republicans, and it showcases the fracture in Colorado’s environmental movement.

The four Democratic candidates for governor support neither the climate lawsuit nor Initiative 97, which increases drilling operations’ minimum distance from occupied buildings from the current 500 feet to 2,500 feet.

The state’s leading environmental group, Conservation Colorado, also is not endorsing either effort, but its leaders downplay the lack of unity on the issues.

“I don’t think it indicates anything at the moment,” said Jessica Goad, the organization’s deputy director. “If anything, it indicates that there may be different priorities that the different conservation groups have — certainly we are not a monolith.”

Steyer plans to help Democrats in state legislative races

Where Steyer does intend to help Democrats in Colorado is the battle for control of the state Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat margin.

NextGen America is collaborating with the League of Conservation Voters — a prominent environmental advocacy organization — to raise money for three state representatives seeking re-election (Jeff Bridges, Tony Exum and Barbara McLachlan) and two state Senate candidates (Faith Winter and Tammy Story). The groups have marked Exum’s seat in Colorado Springs and the two Denver-area state Senate seats being sought by Winter and Story as national “priority” races.

Steyer donated $400 to each, the maximum under state law, and he hopes to bundle much more from donors across the nation through the “Give Green” campaign. He credited a similar effort in 2016 with raising more than $70,000 for Colorado legislative candidates, but it’s not a direct big-dollar investment.

The collaboration also is raising money for Joe Neguse, a Boulder Democrat running for Congress in a contested party primary.

Elsewhere, Steyer’s organization is working with two other organizations on a $1.5 million effort that is seeking to register high school students to vote ahead of the midterm elections.

Colorado is one of 10 states in the campaign, which is focused on promoting tougher gun regulations. But it’s not clear whether the campaign will target U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican who sits in one of the nation’s most contested congressional seats.

Steyer spent big in prior two elections

Steyer’s two efforts in the state represent less engagement compared with the California hedge fund owner’s prominent role in the prior two election cycles.

In 2014, NextGen Climate Action Committee spent more than $9 million to help re-elect Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. In 2016, the group spent $2.3 million in the state as part of an attempt to flip the state Senate to Democratic control. Both were unsuccessful.

In the process, Republican critics transformed Steyer into a political boogeyman and helped energize the opposition.

“What it shows after a rough-and-tumble 2014 election cycle, is that his anti-fossil fuel agenda does not play well in Colorado, even among Democrats,” said Matt Dempsey, a consultant for the oil and gas industry, remarking on Steyer’s limited involvement in the state this election cycle. “There are few things Coloradans like less than a billionaire from California trying to tell them how to vote, especially when it comes to the issues of energy policy.”

Energy industry says Steyer’s fingerprints found elsewhere

But Dempsey and other energy industry advocates suggest Steyer is still poised to make a significant impact on Colorado politics this year.

The critics point to a handful of national environmental organizations that Steyer has supported, such as Sierra Club and 350, both of which continue to work against oil and gas operations in Colorado. The Sierra Club has endorsed Initiative 97, the effort to increase drilling setbacks.

“He may have learned his lesson from 2014 and 2016 to not be the face of it,” said Simon Lomax, a researcher at Vital for Colorado, a business group that backs the state’s energy industry. “But the groups that he funds are as involved as they have ever been in Colorado politics.”

Environmental movement touts importance of 2018 election

On the other side, environmental advocates are working to keep attention on Colorado and highlight the importance of the 2018 election.

“Colorado is crucial from a national perspective,” said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters and a Colorado resident. “What happens politically in Colorado this year is important and merits attention, and we at LCV are certainly focused on that.”

The Washington, D.C.-based organization, backed by Steyer, said it plans to nearly double its involvement in state races this year. In a February memo, the group listed priority targets for 2018 that included the Colorado state legislature but didn’t mention the governor’s race or ballot initiatives.

In Colorado, the memo noted that “winning just one seat in the state Senate would flip the chamber to a pro-environment majority.”

Conservation Colorado, the league’s local affiliate, said it still hopes to lure big environmental money into state races to help blunt major money from energy interests. Three oil and gas companies are among the top donors so far this election cycle, according to a recent Denver Post analysis. But even Steyer has not yet donated to Conservation Colorado this election cycle, the group acknowledged.

“It is still really early in the election cycle,” Goad said. “We are beginning to have conversations with all kinds of donors and our membership about the elections, so we are beginning to put together what our election work will look like this year.”

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