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For Big Spenders, Short-Term Losses Mask Long-Term Influence

Tom Steyer’s favorite candidates may have lost in this year’s midterm election, but he asserted himself as one of the nation’s most politically influential billionaires.

  • Brent Ferguson
November 11, 2014

Tom Steyer spent over $50 million trying to make environmental protection a top issue in last week’s midterms and backing Democrats who would help him do it. Most of his favored candidates lost. This has led some to argue that his spending was all for naught: The New York Times put it succinctly: “Mr. Steyer appears to have largely wasted his time and money.”

But recent history suggests that Steyer’s money wasn’t wasted, as noted by Politico. Instead, it will put Steyer and his political agenda at the top of the heap in the next two years. He may not have achieved the short-term electoral gains he sought, but he has secured his place next to Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers among the nation’s most politically influential billionaires. Steyer surely went to sleep on election night with real disappointment, but also with the assurance that any serious Democratic contender for president in the coming years will likely appear at his doorstep come election time.

The shortsighted view of Steyer’s losses is surprising because of the obvious historical analogy: almost the exact same thing happened with Sheldon Adelson and the Republicans in 2012. As much as Steyer wanted pro-environment candidates to win last week, Adelson wanted Newt Gingrich (and then Mitt Romney) and other Republicans to win in 2012, and his family spent at least $98 million on races in that cycle. Because Republicans did poorly in that election, some thought the money was wasted. But, as a writer for Forbes presciently explained shortly after that election, the spending wasn’t worthless because it “bought Adelson a direct line into every politician — and media outlet — in America.”

While recognizing that Adelson’s spending had bought him lasting influence wasn’t extraordinarily difficult, it was an important point to make that was often lost in stories about Republican hand-wringing. Since then, we’ve seen countless Republicans, especially presidential hopefuls like Governors Chris Christie and Scott Walker, nuzzle up to Adelson in hopes of a flood of green for 2016. Adelson’s newfound power may be the most convincing rebuttal of the Supreme Court’s 2010 pronouncement  in Citizens United that independent spending cannot corrupt a politician.

Few people who aren’t wearing black robes in Washington D.C. seriously argue that Adelson’s millions will not corrupt American politics — who really thinks that he wouldn’t help shape the campaign promises and agenda of a Republican president? And of course, the same is true of Steyer.

For all the focus on the millions spent on unsuccessful Democrats in 2014 and unsuccessful Republicans in 2012, let’s remember that despite election results, the real loss of power in recent years is that of the American people. Immensely popular issues like fair wages are not on the agenda because they are not the pet causes of our billionaire leaders, and much-needed simplification of the tax system won’t happen because big spenders constantly seek (and receive) special tax breaks that would be thwarted by a simpler structure. The only way to make our government listen is by changing their incentives through tools like New York City’s public financing system and limits on the super PACs and other outside groups that are starting to dominate our elections.

(Photo: Robert van Waarden)