The Age of the Single-Issue, Mega-Donor Political Party Has Arrived

A California environmental activist hopes to raise $100 million to elect politicians who will fight climate change.

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A California environmental activist hopes to raise $100 million to elect politicians who will fight climate change. A center-right Republican is forming a PAC of "mega-donors" who will back Republicans that support gay marriage and immigration reform. With spending rules and political norms loosened, wealthy Americans are adding their own circles to America's political Venn diagram.

Environmentalist / billionaire Tom Steyer has already committed $50 million to the 2014 elections and is hoping to raise $50 million more. As The New York Times' Nicholas Confessore reports, his focus is simple: "pressure federal and state officials to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers." His PAC, NextGen Climate Action, will target Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who's facing an uphill reelection campaign in a state that will be at the forefront of higher sea levels from climate change. But his PAC will also consider going after Democratic Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose support for the fossil fuel industry and tough reelection fight has made her one of the more moderate Democrats in the Senate.

A little bit on the other side of the Democratic-Republican dividing line is a new PAC organized by New York billionaire Paul Singer. According to Politico, he's pulling donors together to try and push the Republican party to the left — by backing candidates who share his views on issues like gay marriage. Unlike NextGen, Singer's group — American Opportunity Alliance — "is more donor-centric, focusing on comparing notes about one another’s political projects and funneling limited hard-money contributions effectively." But the end result is the same: get people elected who adhere to the group's specific party platform.

It's not surprising that we're seeing more bespoke parties emerging. The heavy investments over multiple campaign cycles from Charles and David Koch have provided a legal roadmap and, perhaps as importantly, established a far-right target for the ire of people who oppose such spending. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has similarly invested on his key issues (mostly gun control) though at a more limited scale.

When The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza reported on the debate over the Keystone pipeline last year, Steyer and his brother Jim, activists on that issue, played a role. In that interview, Steyer also articulated how he differentiates between his work and the Kochs.

Jim Steyer told me that a friend had asked him if he and Tom were aspiring to be the Koch brothers of the left. “Yeah, I like that!” Jim replied. Tom dismissed the analogy. “I completely disagree, because what they’re doing is standing up for ideas that they profit from,” he said of the Kochs. “We think we’re representing the vast bulk of citizens of the United States. We’re not representing our pockets.”

There's truth to that argument; the Kochs have emphasized policies and candidates aimed at reducing government involvement in the private sector, which serves their business interests. But in another sense, the Kochs and the Steyers are doing the same thing: using heavy bank accounts to create a new outlet for a particular political position. The Kochs do so through an intricate system of heavily-masked organizations — dark pipelines, if you will — and Steyer may want to let the sun shine on his organization's efforts, but they're broadly of a piece.

It remains to be seen if these investments, which are relatively novel in American politics, will be maintained year after year. The Kochs had a bad 2012, after all, and they and Steyer and Singer may not want to keep spending tens of millions of dollars a year if they don't gain any traction on Election Day. (Steyer's heavy investment in the campaign of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year, for example, doesn't seem to have done much.) But there's another trend that could make that easier: the increasing willingness of Americans to consider themselves independent. The graph below shows the first Gallup party affiliation polling for each of the last 10 years. It goes up and down, but the trend is away from parties and toward political independence.

There will probably never be an actual NextGen Party or a Koch Party. But if the mega-donors can convince enough of those independents to vote down-ticket on their single issues, there doesn't need to be. And the investment will have been worth it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.