Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s organization plans to spend at least $2 million to elect Democrat Ralph Northam as Virginia’s next governor, with a focus on turning out millenial voters.
The former California hedge-fund manager turned climate activist told The Washington Post that Virginia, which is holding the nation’s marquee gubernatorial contest this year, is the most important campaign priority for his group, NextGen America.
“This is the race of the year,” Steyer said. “It seems like there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Americans right now, and it’s taking place as much in Virginia as anyplace else in the United States of America.”
Steyer has crusaded to put climate change at the forefront of public policy, spending more than $100 million on elections as well as other efforts to combat it.
His group’s support for Northam comes despite the fact that the Democrat has been largely neutral about two proposed natural gas pipelines that would snake through Virginia.
Many environmentalists in the state, along with some landowners, are opposed to the pipelines and say they are angry with Northam, who has maintained that the projects’ fate is up to federal regulators and the state has little say. His Republican rival, Ed Gillespie, supports the pipelines.
A sponsor of one of the pipelines is Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest corporate political donor. Northam owns shares in the company, and has also accepted campaign contributions from Dominion.
Steyer opposes the construction of new infrastructure for fossil fuels, including pipelines.
He sighed when asked about how the gas pipelines affected his support for Northam, who opposes offshore drilling.
“He has said, and we have talked to him about this and it’s something that we continue to work on and be aware of, that the pipeline will be subject to the toughest possible environmental review, which we obviously think is good,” said Steyer. “We think he is much much better than Mr. Gillespie on environmental policies in general.”
A spokesman for Northam said his conversations with Steyer have no bearing on his stance on the pipelines.
“Dr. Northam’s policy positions, in private and public, do not waiver. He only makes decisions based on what’s best for Virginia,” said David Turner, the spokesman. “As he has stated repeatedly, he believes the pipeline needs to follow a rigorous and scientific permitting process and respect the property rights of Virginians.”
Steyer’s organization spent the second largest amount in Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial contest, giving $8 million on advertising, field operations and other efforts to help elect Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and other Democrats. Steyer hasn’t ruled out funding television commercials independent from the candidate this year, as he did last time.
But his current focus is mobilizing young voters who typically stay home for non-presidential elections, he said.
NextGen America’s $2 million commitment is expected to cover 70 paid staffers on 25 Virginia college campuses, who will register and try to turn out millenial voters in November. It will also pay for a digital campaign to reach millenials who aren’t in college.
A spokeswoman for NextGen said its organizers registered more than 1,000 voters at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville as students moved onto campus over the past weekend.
Separately, a political action committee formed by NextGen and labor unions plans to spend at least $1.2 million to mobilize progressive voters in Virginia who are less likely to vote in midterm races.
“Our overwhelming interest in the process is that it’s grassroots, is that we’re enabling people in their home state to have the ability to talk to each other and have these conversations,” said Steyer.
Republicans criticized Northam’s dependence on national organizations, which also includes a $3 million Planned Parenthood operation.
“Out-of-state donors are rushing to spend millions to prop up No Show Northam’s sinking campaign,” said Garren Shipley, Virginia spokesman for the Republican National Committee. The fact is, Virginia voters know Northam’s policies are wrong for the Commonwealth.”
NextGen’s focus on young voters extends beyond Virginia. Steyer previously announced he would spend $7.5 million this year to register young voters in swing states, and would ramp up efforts in 2018. His super PAC spent $25 million on similar efforts in 2016.
Steyer pushed to make climate a key issue in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial contest, attacking Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli II as a climate change denier.
His organization has since rebranded to focus on more than just the environment — changing its name from NextGen Climate to NextGen America. In Virginia, Steyer said NextGen would discuss climate as part of a “broader vision” for improving the economy and protecting fundamental rights.
Gillespie has come under fire from environmentalists for supporting President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate pact and not mentioning climate change in his plan to address sea level rise that threatens to flood coastal communities. A spokesman for Gillespie says he believes there’s ample evidence of climate change, and that human activity contributes to it.