California billionaire Tom Steyer — a climate activist and political ally of Gov. Jay Inslee — has entered Washington state’s 2014 elections in a big way, sending $1 million here in an expected effort to help Democrats take control of the state Senate.
Steyer donated $1 million last week to the Washington branch of his NextGen Climate Action Committee, according to a report filed Monday with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). Two days later, NextGen sent $50,000 to the Kennedy Fund, a political committee that backs Democrats for the state Senate.
The donation is just a slice of the $100 million the Golden State hedge-fund founder has pledged to spend nationally in the 2014 midterms to elect candidates who share his desire for sweeping action to combat global warming.
Republicans sounded the alarm on the billionaire’s intervention here.
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“Tom Steyer is trying to buy control of the State Senate to pass a radical agenda that benefits his financial and political interests but will raise costs and increase taxes for middle-class families,” said Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement.
Representatives for Steyer did not respond Monday to requests for comment.
Steyer’s involvement in the state has been anticipated for months. In May, he had a private lunch with Inslee at the governor’s mansion in Olympia to talk climate policy and politics.
Inslee is developing climate legislation for the 2015 Legislature that could include a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Such plans are likely to receive a friendlier reception if Democrats can seize control of the state Senate from the GOP-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus that now holds the majority.
Jaxon Ravens, chair of the state Democratic Party, said Steyer’s money would aid in the push “to put real leadership in the state Senate — leadership that the Majority Coalition Caucus was not demonstrating.”
In another sign of the environmentalist money burst headed to Washington’s 2014 elections, the League of Conservation Voters — also funded partly by Steyer — sent $200,000 last week to its state affiliate, Washington Conservation Voters (WCV), a PDC filing Monday showed.
Shannon Murphy, WCV’s president, said the group expects to raise as much as $800,000 for this year’s legislative races, comparable to its 2012 effort in support of Inslee.
To regain control of the Senate, Democrats need to capture two seats from Republicans.
Republicans are hardly defenseless in the fight. Business interests — including oil- and coal-related companies — have donated hundreds of thousands to Republican political committees, such as the Leadership Council, seeking to maintain or expand the GOP’s Senate grasp.
One race likely to see a share of the Steyer money is the effort by Democrats to unseat state Sen. Doug Ericksen in Whatcom County’s 42nd Legislative District.
As chair of the Senate Energy Committee, Ericksen has emerged as a leading skeptic when it comes to Inslee’s push to take major action on climate change. While not ruling out a cap-and-trade or other carbon-reduction plan, Ericksen has downplayed the urgency of the global-warming threat and argues that Washington already is a low-emissions state.
Ericksen is being challenged by Democrat Seth Fleetwood, a former Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council member who agrees with Inslee that global warming poses a threat to the state’s economy.
Steyer’s cash also could flow to several other competitive legislative races across the state, including the Eastside’s 45th Legislative District, where Republican state Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond, who has been the Senate GOP budget writer, is being challenged by Democrat Matt Isenhower, a former Amazon employee and Navy veteran.
Steyer’s organization spent more than $500,000 in Washington state last year, backing a losing Democrat in a special state Senate election, and helping to elect four Whatcom County Council members viewed as opposed to a proposed coal-export terminal near Bellingham.