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Why is a billionaire climate activist bothering with GOP primaries?

The amount of money spent in the 2016 election cycle is on track to double the roughly $2 billion spent in 2012. One reason is the rise of spending by millionaire and billionaire political activists on both sides of the aisle. Gwen Ifill talks to billionaire Tom Steyer of NextGen Climate, who has pledged millions on the issue of climate change.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The ever-growing cost of political warfare is now reaching into the stratosphere, with the 2016 election on track to possibly double the roughly $2 billion spent in 2012.

    Part of the reason for all that spending has been the rise of millionaire and billionaire political activists on both sides of the political aisle. In the past, we have looked at the Koch brothers, who have pledged nearly a billion dollars to Republican and conservative causes this cycle. On the left, there is billionaire Tom Steyer, who has pledged millions on the issue of climate change.

    And Tom Steyer joins me now.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • TOM STEYER, Founder, NextGen Climate:

    Nice to see you, Gwen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You spent, they say, $70 million in the 2014 midterm elections. Is money the key to this 2016 election?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I sure hope not, because, from what I can tell, the Democrats have a very good chance of being outspent.

    I think the key to the election is going to be message and candidate, the way it usually is. And if the message is significant and meaningful to voters, and if the candidate connects as an authentic person who really cares about their concerns and wants to address them and can address them, I think that is going to carry the day.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I do want to talk about the issues you support, but I’m also curious.

    You have already decided to support Hillary Clinton. You have raised money for her, yet she has been on the campaign trail saying one of the first things she would do as president is repeal Citizens United. Wouldn’t that put you out of business as a super PAC runner?

  • TOM STEYER:

    It would be fantastic.

    We felt from the beginning that Citizens United was a mistake, that the way that money is used in American campaigns isn’t good for democracy. It’s just been a situation where we felt as if there’s an immense amount of money on the other side, and as long as this is the system which the Supreme Court has put in place, there’s got to be somebody on our side.

    And when you look at the relative dollars, it really is a David and Goliath situation, and we’re very definitely the small shepherd boy with five rocks and a sling.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The small shepherd boy, really?

  • TOM STEYER:

    Absolutely.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You’re David?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I don’t think there’s any question about it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let’s talk about some of your David issues then.

    The Keystone pipeline is something which you have — say shouldn’t be built. Hillary Clinton hasn’t exactly said, since she’s been a candidate, what. In fact, she has been kind of, some people think, suspiciously quiet, some people on your side of the argument, about it.

    What would you do if she decided that, as she seemed like she was heading in the direction when she was secretary of state, that she was inclined to support its construction?

  • TOM STEYER:

    Well, we see Keystone as a significant decision about the future of American energy policy, that it’s a dirty — the tar sands are a dirty source of energy, and that developing them — and they’re absolutely immense — is a choice that’s going to play out over decades, whereas we think the correct thing for the United States to do is to follow a technology- and research-based clean energy policy that will create a lot of jobs.

    So, when you think about Mrs. Clinton hypothetically determine what we do if she did something that she hasn’t done, what we have heard her do is talk about the importance of energy and climate, that it’s the most significant set of issues facing the American people. And I expect she will come out with a set of policies that’s really responsive.

    So I actually don’t think we’re going to be faced by the question that you’re posing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let’s listen — take a look at some of your very tough anti-Keystone video advertising, a little bit of it right here. So, this puts you potentially on the other side of President Obama as well. Are — you consider yourself to be kind of a single-issue supporter?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I actually don’t.

    You know, I see energy and climate as a human issue. And, by the way, I expect that President Obama will turn down the pipeline, just to be clear.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What do you base that on?

  • TOM STEYER:

    On the test that he set up as to whether he would approve it, was to say, will it increase carbon pollution, which it will. And if he follows the test that he himself set up, then he will turn it down.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    As an issue candidate, rather than necessarily a party candidate, can you see yourself ever supporting a Republican?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I think, if we are trying to monitor all the Republican candidates for president, hope — we’re seeing the Republicans move. And we’d be thrilled to be faced with a Republican who was more progressive on energy and climate than his Democratic…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you see any out there?

  • TOM STEYER:

    No.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, what’s the point in getting involved in any way in the Republican primaries if it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other for you on your issues?

  • TOM STEYER:

    Well, from our point of view, not in terms of giving money, but in terms of trying to make sure that there is someone getting candidates on the record, keeping an honest record of that, giving them encouragement when they do the — what we think of as the right thing to do, trying to expose them when they — we don’t think they’re facing up to the issue fairly, that’s a job that we think it’s important for somebody in America to do, because we think American citizens have a right to know where the candidates stand on what is one of the key issues facing us.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Aside from the fact that you disagree about some of the basic issues, and maybe the order of magnitude, how are you different from the Koch brothers?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I would put — there’s a lot of differences.

    First of all, anything — there’s no way you can show, because it’s not true, that anything we’re doing is self-interested. The Koch brothers say that they’re acting out of conviction, but whatever they’re doing also definitely benefits their bottom line. You can’t say that about us.

    Second of all, we’re — we — I’m very suspicious and scared about the way money’s used in politics. And to try to ameliorate that, we try to be as transparent as possible. You have said, here are the records of exactly what you spent.

    Yes, that’s true. We made those available. We try and do everything in a way so that people can see exactly what we’re doing. I’m actually on your show, obviously, Gwen. Did the Koch brothers come on your show?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We’re waiting on them.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • TOM STEYER:

    OK. I’m sure you are.

    But my only point is, A, it’s not in our self-interest to do what we’re doing. We think it’s in the public interest. Second of all, we’re trying to be as transparent as possible.

    And, third of all, it’s absolutely true, if you look at the numbers, whatever it is, we’re going to be a fraction of what they are, so we’re going to have to rely on message and the facts being on our side.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, assuming that you’re putting your money where your mouth is, $70 million in 2014, how much this time, do you think, in 2016?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I don’t know.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Of course you’re not going to tell me that, right?

  • TOM STEYER:

    Because I honestly don’t know.

    What of the things I have found in politics is, anyone who thinks they can plan how a campaign is going to go, I think, is foolish, because it’s one of those interactive things. If I do something, you do something. So you really don’t understand before it starts how it’s going to play out.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There’s another way of putting your money where your mouth is. And that could have been running for the U.S. Senate from California for Barbara Boxer’s seat. Why did you decide against that?

  • TOM STEYER:

    Honestly, we felt like the way that we could have the most impact in 2015 and 2016 wasn’t by running, but actually to try and keep going on the voter-to-voter contact that we had been pushing in 2014, which was going out and registering voters, having people go door to door and talk to voters, trying to get people to understand the issues that we think are most significant.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Don’t you have to have a face in order to make that case most effectively?

  • TOM STEYER:

    I think, ultimately, someone has got to take the lead.

    I think that, obviously, there are people who are running on the Democratic side who want to be that face. But I think, in 2015 and 2016, we really felt like what we could do was support what was going on and basically try and rely on old-fashioned American democracy, which is Americans talking to Americans about the most important issues of the day.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tom Steyer is running a group called NextGen Climate Action.

    Thank you very much.

  • TOM STEYER:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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