For Green Billionaire, a Wealth of Hurdles in California Senate Race

Tom Steyer may be in for a rough ride

Last year, Tom Steyer had a hard time electing candidates who pledged to battle climate change despite pouring tens of millions dollars of his own fortune into the effort. Getting himself elected to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer of California wouldn't be any easier.

The billionaire former hedge-fund manager has the funds to compete in a race that could cost the winner upwards of $100 million. But a lack of political experience and name recognition may be too much to overcome in a race already expected to draw top-tier, battle-tested candidates who can also raise a ton of cash.

"He's laid no foundation anywhere in the state, and few know him—including many of the Democratic Party players, beyond the cocktail party level," said California political consultant Gale Kaufman. Over the weekend, Steyer did hold a series of meetings and calls with advisers to map out a potential campaign, a source close to Steyer said.

It will take more than money. Steyer would face the challenges of being a first-time candidate—the 12 hours per day of campaign events, speeches, and interviews for months on end, noted Kalee Kreider, who has previously advised former Vice President Al Gore.

"He and his family haven't faced the political colonoscopy of a statewide campaign in a jungle primary system which would be different than the scrutiny he has received in the past," Kreider said, referring to the state's primary system in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move onto the final election.

If he runs, he'll have company. There's a lot of pent-up interest in the rare open Senate contest in California, and a number of potential candidates for the seat Boxer has held since 1992. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is running, the Associated Press reported Monday night. Other potential candidates include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a handful of House members, including Loretta Sanchez and Jackie Speier. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday he will not run.

Steyer's camp is confident that he has the connections and experience to mount a winning campaign.

His high-profile work on climate change and energy—including efforts opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and boosting Democratic candidates this fall—has put him in the crosshairs of fossil-fuel interests and their political allies. Those results were mixed at best. Steyer-backed Democratic candidates lost Senate races in Colorado and Iowa, and governor's races in Florida and Maine. But he scored wins in the Michigan and New Hampshire Senate races and the Pennsylvania governor's race.

A source close to the Bay Area billionaire said his years of advocacy work means that Steyer is ready for the fray, noting that he has "been facing major league pitching for a while at this point."

And Steyer, through his NextGen Climate group, has surrounded himself with veteran political talent who have connections well beyond the environmental movement and would be poised to aid a run for Senate. For instance, adviser Josie Mooney comes out of California's labor movement, while another senior adviser, Sky Gallegos, had top campaign roles in California for Bill Clinton and for John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004.

"If Tom Steyer has the fire in the belly to run, he has some obvious pluses including an environmental record that would connect to a part of the Democratic primary base in California. He also has strong fundraising connections and the ability to self-fund," Kreider said.

Steyer's camp is also emphasizing that his work has already extended well beyond green energy and climate change. That includes the bank now called Beneficial State Bank that Steyer cofounded in 2007. It focuses on supporting affordable housing, low-income community development, and other goals. In the Bay Area, Steyer is also involved with Too Small to Fail, a Clinton Foundation-backed effort to promote the well-being of children ages 5 and under.

"If he runs, the campaign would be based on environmental justice, economic justice, and education justice, so the next generation will get a fair shake," the source close to Steyer said.

Still, If Steyer gets in, he'll be seeking to represent a state that has not been friendly to rich political novices. In just the past few years, Republican and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent $140 million running for governor and lost to Jerry Brown in 2010, while former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina spent millions of her own in an unsuccessful race against Boxer.

"Wealthy candidates have not fared well [in] Senate elections in California, and part of it is that they have not demonstrated that they can handle all the complex issues that California faces," said Barbara O'Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University (Sacramento).

"Tom will face that same reality," she said. "He has got candidates running against him who have served and demonstrated that they are capable of dealing with the complexity of all the issues that confront California."