Could billionaire dark money donor Tom Steyer run for Boxer's seat?

With the upcoming exit of Barbara Boxer (D-CA) from the Senate, the race is on to replace her. Noah already asked if the GOP has anyone on the bench who might claim the seat. (For the record, my answer is already “no.” The only person who might be able to pull it off is Condi Rice, but her hatred of politics is nearly legendary.) So in the end, this may turn out to be nothing more than a very expensive Democrat primary. But who do they have in the wings?


Boxer was a frequent critic of all of the dark money in politics and an opponent of unregulated campaign spending. So it’s somewhat amazing that one of the early names being bandied about is that of one of the biggest outside political donors in the nation, billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer.

Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer is aggressively exploring a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer and is expected to make a decision within days, according to multiple sources close to Steyer.

The former hedge fund titan has been huddling with advisors, polling California voters, buying website addresses and meeting with political and labor leaders as he weighs a bid, the sources said.

“Steyer has the greatest incentive to plant his flag early,” said Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He “has the capacity to scare other people out of the race.”

The ability to “scare people” is a particularly apt description for Steyer, and his prospective opponents – should he decide to run – have plenty of reason to be frightened. It’s not just the hedge fund titan’s deep pockets, but the wide ranging influence he has demonstrated which make him a dangerous opponent.

This recent article from Greenwire (behind a subscription paywall, unfortunately) provides a deep dive tour into Steyer’s wide ranging network of political influence. Right at the top of the list is the fact that Steyer spends so much time at the White House that he may as well have his own room there.


The billionaire environmentalist — whose efforts to boost green candidates have made him one of the country’s top political spenders — has logged at least 14 meetings with top White House officials since 2009, according to White House records released last week. That includes one-on-one meetings with former chiefs of staff and several meetings with Obama’s top environmental adviser in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections.

“It shows Tom Steyer has not just got the ear of the president, but he clearly has the president’s attention,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen. “That’s what money does buy; it buys access.”

Last year, Steyer attended five White House meetings between February and September, the records show. Four of those were with John Podesta, President Obama’s counselor and chief environmental adviser.

His contacts were spread out well beyond just the confines of the Oval Office.

On June 25, he met with Rohan Patel, White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, who previously worked on climate change and conservation issues at the Council on Environmental Quality. Steyer and several of his allies — including former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson — were presenting a report titled “Risky Business,” warning about the dangers of climate change (Greenwire, June 24).

Among the others present at that meeting were Treasury Department Deputy Chief of Staff Adewale Adeyemo, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, and NextGen climate and energy director Kate Gordon.

Before 2014, Steyer attended a series of one-on-one meetings with some of Obama’s chief advisers.


Steyer found ways to dump cash in places besides standard donations to campaign war chests, ensuring that he would have the gratitude of top Democrats.

He regularly cut checks for Democratic lawmakers’ campaigns, including donations to Emanuel’s congressional fund in 2006 and 2007 and to the presidential campaigns of Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman in 2003, according to campaign finance records.

Steyer donated $50,000 to Obama’s inauguration fund in 2009, and was a bundler for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign — meaning he helped raise cash from others after he contributed the maximum amount allowed under campaign finance laws, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ data.

The Democrats may be convinced that money is ruining politics in America, and if they allow Steyer to step foot on the actual playing field they should have all the proof they need for years to come. To be clear, I have no problem with Steyer’s success. This is America, and he has lived the dream and prospered massively in our free market society. The only problem here is the disconnect between his words and the life he has lived. This poster boy for the top 1% of the 1% is one of the most radical environmental activists out there, on top of being one of the biggest hypocrites in the country. (He vigorously fights against fossil fuels despite making vast amounts of money from energy interests.) And he obviously knows the dark underbelly of the political game and is no stranger to the influence game. Most of us have no problem with Steyer being a rich, fat cat. Good for you! Just don’t run around insulting all the rest of rich, fat cats.


So, could Steyer win? That’s probably a pointless question. Qualifications have little or nothing to do with a race like this. It’s all about the money and the influence, and nobody in California could hold a candle to Steyer in those categories. The irony of this being the face of the party that wants to get big money out of elections is palpable.

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David Strom 2:40 PM | February 20, 2024