Conservative groups are honing in on an attack plan to rebuff billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer's foray into a handful of Senate and gubernatorial races.
At issue are Steyer's alleged dealings in Indonesian coal when he ran his former hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management. Conservative outfits want to turn Steyer's suggestion that his policies aren't aligned with his pocketbook -- a defense Steyer and his environmental and Democratic allies make to parry accusations that he is a liberal version of the Koch brothers -- on its face.
"Steyer learned how to buy and sell politicians cutting his brazenly corrupt coal deals with [former Indonesian President] Suharto and figured he could use the same tactics to kill Keystone XL here. The sad thing is, in Obama's America, it actually worked," said Phil Kerpen, the president of American Commitment, a conservative nonprofit that has funded anti-Steyer advertisements -- including one that mentions the supposed ties to Indonesian coal.
Kerpen said American Commitment will be active in every state Steyer plans to engage in to "expose the corruption and hypocrisy" of the former hedge fund manager, referring to his alleged history with Indonesian coal and his clean-energy investments.
Steyer's NextGen Climate Action PAC announced Thursday it would use a data-driven strategy to play in Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire and in gubernatorial contests in Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania, seeking to raise the profile of climate change in those states ahead of the 2016 elections. They're all fairly safe bets for NextGen Climate, which will draw $50 million from Steyer's personal wealth with hopes of raising a matching figure from other donors, as Democrats either have a slight edge or are heavily favored in those races.
In playing defense, Steyer is hoping to maintain the Senate for Democrats to prevent a rollback of President Obama's climate agenda. By using the rarely utilized Congressional Review Act, Republicans would need only 51 votes to scuttle Environmental Protection Agency carbon emissions rules for new and existing power plants -- the latter of which is due for a June 1 release -- that form the centerpiece of the administration's climate strategy.
Details of Steyer's strategy come as Democrats have increasingly leaned on sharp-tongued attacks of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialist brothers who bankroll conservative candidates advocating free-market policies. Steyer and Democrats have often charged that the Kochs have abducted Congress with their financial influence in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates for political funding through super PACs.
"I think there are real distinctions between the Koch brothers and us. I think one thing is their policies line up perfectly with their pocketbooks, and that's not true for us. What we're doing is we're trying to stand up for ideas and principles that we think are incredibly important but that have nothing to do with our incomes or assets," Steyer said last month on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers."
Republicans have shot back that Democrats are being hypocritical, as Steyer has hosted fundraisers -- Vice President Joe Biden is the featured guest at a May 28 Democratic National Committee confab at Steyer's San Francisco home -- and pledged to step into political races as well.
Conservative groups are taking shots at the altruism Steyer and his defenders have attempted to project — that their money is good money because it's for the planet, and nothing else.
The Indonesian coal deals take top billing, as Steyer's opponents will seek to muddy his record on climate change.
Media reports surfaced that Farallon financed $2 billion of coal acquisitions in Australia and Indonesia -- the world's top coal exporter -- in the 2000s when Steyer ran the hedge fund. While Steyer mainly focused on the United States, he would have needed to sign off on the deals, according to reports.
The allegations already have made their way into an American Commitment advertisement, and others are entering the fray. The American Energy Alliance, the political advocacy arm of the conservative Institute for Energy Research, has hit Steyer in radio appearances and is honing in on Indonesia.
“The more Tom Steyer becomes a household name, the more the public is going to learn that he made his money funding fossil-fuel projects in other countries at the expense of jobs in the US. Creating foreign jobs while working with his political allies to stop jobs in the U.S. may seem consistent to him, but it’s not clear Americans — still hurting from a stagnant economy — are going to buy this from a billionaire with a global warming fetish," Dan Kish, senior vice president of the Institute of Energy Research, said in an email.
Steyer has said that he divested from the coal and oil sands projects he was involved in at Farallon after he left the firm in 2012, though proof of whether he did has been hard to find. NextGen Climate routinely rejects requests for such information. Also unknown is whether Steyer did or plans to drop investments in natural gas, which, despite being half as carbon-dense as coal, is still a fossil fuel that some activists say must remain in the ground to avert the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Although Steyer claims that he would not benefit financially from the policies he pushes, he's still an investor in clean energy. Wind, solar and other low- or zero-carbon sources of energy would likely be increasingly relied upon in the wake of the power plant rules Obama is expected to announce next month, which could provide a boon for clean energy installations.
That's also been a focus for American Commitment, which was founded by Kerpen, a former Americans for Prosperity strategist. AFP is funded by the Kochs, though Kerpen has avoided discussing whether American Commitment is.
Kerpen said Steyer's clean energy investments would continue to be a focus, pointing to Steyer's 2011 founding of clean-energy trade group Advanced Energy Economy as a way to mobilize investors around clean energy. He referred to a two-year-old video of Steyer saying the purpose of Advanced Energy Economy was to "create a better business environment to develop advanced-energy businesses. ... It's a big business opportunity. It's a chance to make a lot of money."
"We will DEFINITELY confront the 'not motivated by pocketbook' lie, especially considering the smoking gun video that surfaced today of Steyer talking about his efforts to hobble fossil fuels and subsidize 'green' energy," Kerpen said in an email.