The Biggest Political Donor of 2014 Is Not Who You Would Expect

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The news: The biggest single donor during the 2014 election cycle hasn't been one of the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson or another conservative billionaire. It's hedge fund manager and climate change activist Tom Steyer, who's pouring an astonishing $36 million into seven states in a major effort to prove environmental issues matter to average Americans.

Bloomberg Politics reports that Steyer is "seeking to persuade voters that sound environmental policy will help the economy and protect public health" through his NextGen Climate Action super PAC. NetGen has raised $42.8 million during the 2014 election cycle, outstripping the the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC ($39.8 million) and Karl Rove's American Crossroads ($25.3 million)

While his money is also flowing to races in Louisiana, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine and Pennsylvania, Steyer's primary focus is on Florida, where sea levels are projected to rise two feet by 2060 in the southeast and where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is battling a hotly contested race against popular moderate and former Gov. Charlie Crist. Steyer's people even built an ark accusing Scott of ignoring the rising tides of climate change while raking in money from Big Oil.

Is this good news for liberals? The amount Steyer is dropping on climate change in 2014 rivals the Koch brothers' impressive $36.7 million war chest in 2012. Unlike the Kochs, all of his donations are being openly disclosed, so it's not like Steyer is doing anything shady and masking the source of his political donations. And according to the Center for Response Politics, the majority of political donations made by non-disclosing donors came from conservative groups:

Source: Center for Responsive Politics
Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Steyer's political donations may serve as a test for liberals who rail against the influence of big money in politics. Will the same liberal activists who clamor for campaign finance reform apply the same criticism to Steyer, despite the fact that he's advocating for political action on climate change?

To be fair, political cash donated to promote the scientific consensus on climate change still pales in comparison to the money flowing to climate change denial groups. The Guardian reports that from 2002-2010, conservative billionaires donated a stunning $120 million to 100+ groups "casting doubt about the science behind climate change."

When it comes to national elections, the picture is even starker. The Center For Responsive Politics estimates that outside conservative groups spent over $265 million during the 2012 election cycle, compared to just short of $34 million for openly liberal groups.

Source: CEPR
Source: CEPR

And here's 2012 spending from the super PACs created by Citizens United, with conservatives outspending liberals over 2:1:

Source: CEPR
Source: CEPR

Steyer might do some good in making climate change an issue in some competitive races, but big outside spenders have historically favored conservative candidates by significant margins.

Why you should care: So far in 2014, liberals are just about breaking even with conservatives in both the outside spending and super PAC categories. But taking this as an encouraging sign would be a mistake for the American left, whose goals ultimately won't be advanced by the takeover of electoral politics by the ultra-wealthy.

As James Kwak writes in the New York Times, lax campaign finance laws have made politicians "increasingly dependent on a small number of seven-digit checks written by a few dozen members of the 0.01 percent, and therefore politics are becoming a type of thoroughbred horse racing." The policies these ultra-wealthy donors generally don't reflect those of average Americans, and especially not liberal ones. In a thorough statistical analysis, the Sunlight Foundation's Lee Drutman found "striking" evidence that mega-donors are pulling American politics to the right, regardless of their stated political affiliation.

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin warns liberals that contributions like Steyer's shouldn't mislead them to conclude that the global warming debate "has somehow been a fair fight," because for the most part "check writers are the denialists." While it's nice that Steyer's slice of the 1% is going to a good cause, voters would do well to remember that the massive flow of money into politics ultimately hurts them big time.