$74 million worth of campaign funding was enough to make Tom Steyer the 2014 elections' single biggest public spender, but the green billionaire's dollars weren't enough to net wins for his favored candidates in key Senate races.
NextGen Climate—Steyer's PAC that got nearly $67 million of his money—focused on Senate races in four states and three gubernatorial contests to boost candidates promoting action on climate change, which Steyer has said politicians must act on now.
That was good enough for an easy win for Gary Peters in Michigan and victory for Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. But industry-backed Republicans won out in closer—and more expensive—Senate races in Colorado and Iowa, with Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst respectively overcoming millions in opposition from NextGen.
And if you peg Steyer's results in which he went up against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fiercely opposes the same climate rules Steyer is fighting for, Steyer can claim a draw at best.
More broadly, green groups—which collectively spent a record $85 million this cycle—fared well supporting candidates in less contested races, such as Ed Markey or Jeff Merkley, although North Carolina incumbent Kay Hagan lost despite support from the League of Conservation Voters and others. Groups had hoped to show that climate change was an issue that could tip races, but they don't appear to have reached a resounding victory.
Save the Michigan campaign, Steyer's contests were narrow battles that pulled in millions from a wide range of groups because of their razor-thin margins, so it's hard to pin a victory on either group. The Colorado race alone saw nearly $70 million from outside groups, while the Iowa race attracted $62 million in outside spending. But Steyer's high-profile entrance to the midterms and his perception as the Left's answer to the Koch Brothers means that he's likely to take the blame—and some of the credit—for his priority races.
Colorado Senate: Loss
This race, widely seen as one that could tip control of the Senate, marked Steyer's biggest national investment, with NextGen Climate pouring in $7 million to fight Republican Cory Gardner (another $400,000 went to support incumbent Mark Udall, despite his more moderate positions on oil and gas development). The group ran ads highlighting Gardner's oil-industry ties and his climate-change skepticism, but also touched on his positions on climate change and birth control as part of a strategy to brand him an "extreme" candidate.
That was countered by $3.7 million in the race by the Chamber—$2.1 million for Gardner and $1.6 million against Udall, the most the group spent against any candidate.
Despite the loss, NextGen Colorado state Director Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa sought to find a moral victory. In a statement, Aguirre-Sacasa said the group's campaign had "successfully brought the issue of climate change to the forefront of Colorado politics during this election cycle."
New Hampshire Senate: Win
NextGen spent $3.7 million to defeat Scott Brown, working to highlight his ties to oil companies and the Koch brothers (one ad played off of Brown's previous stint in Massachusetts with the line "out-of-state oilmen like the Koch brothers are spending millions to elect out-of-state politician Scott Brown to our Senate seat.").
Meanwhile, the chamber put in $2 million for Brown and another $550,000 against Shaheen in a race that Engstrom said represented "one of the clearest choices between failed economic policies and a new vision for our country that will prioritize growth and prosperity." That ended up being one of Steyer's and Democrats' few wins in tight races.
Iowa Senate: Loss
Chamber political director Rob Engstrom branded this a "Tier One priority race," backing that up with $2.4 million in support for Ernst and another $763,000 against Democrat Bruce Braley.
That was matched with $4.6 million from NextGen Climate to battle Ernst, plus another $781,000 in support of Braley for a campaign that tackled Ernst's opposition to the renewable fuel standard and her position that EPA should be shut down. But the ads did little to tamp Ernst's rise through the polls, sealed with her 52 percent-to-44-percent victory.
Michigan Senate: Win
This was never much of a contest, with Democratic Rep. Gary Peters leading early and often in the polls. Indeed, an analysis by The Washington Post ahead of Election Day noted that it was the only race where a NextGen-backed candidate gained in the polls after Steyer announced his involvement. NextGen's messaging slammed Land for her connections to the Koch brothers and her position that climate change can't be a top concern for elected officials.
Still, NextGen invested more than $4 million in the race (all but $100,000 was against Land). Opponents didn't do much—the chamber put up just $500,000 in support of Land, and most other Republican groups kept spending low (Steyer was topped by the conservative Ending Spending Action Fund, which spent $5.4 million total in the race, but no other right-leaning group investmented more than $1 million).
Gubernatorial Races: Mixed Bag
Steyer also engaged in three gubernatorial races and came away with just one win, an expected victory for Democrat Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania. NextGen had especially gone hard against Florida incumbent Rick Scott, spending nearly $20 million on ads hammering him for his denial of climate science in a state especially at risk from global warming. NextGen also went in on the Maine gubernatorial race to fight Republican incumbent Paul LePage, marked by an outreach effort to reach 60,000 voters. LePage, however, came out ahead in his narrow race, topping Democrat Mike Michaud.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.