The Steyer story: Election coverage gone bad

Hedge fund investor and environmentalist Tom Steyer is no Koch brother, despite the media spin. (Photo by Helloaloe via Wikipedia.)

By Peter Dykstra, The Daily Climate

I have no idea who will win tomorrow, or whether the Republicans will capture control of the U.S. Senate. Pollsters, TV pundits and the fivethirtyeights of the world say the GOP has a slight edge. But they don't know, either.

So let's focus on two things I've put in the "known" column: Environmentalists are still a long way from having "arrived" as a central political force. And a lot of Beltway scribes have taken some pretty awful liberties with the Tom Steyer story. 

Steyer and his pro-climate-action campaign cash blitz are good copy. A search of the EHN/Daily Climate archives finds the Steyer named in 207 news stories and opinion pieces so far this year, compared to 57 last year and a total of six in the years before that.

A freak, and a good story

But in embracing the cause of environmentalists and climate scientists -- you know, the ones who are in it just for the grant money -- the former hedge fund investor is a freak, and therefore a good story. 

Which is how the story goes bad.

This year, Tom Steyer has been portrayed as an "oligarch," or a "billionaire environmentalist," whose electoral philanthropy is a "crusade." 

As billionaires go, he's barely scraping by. He has a billion in the bank, give or take. He hovers somewhere around 1,150th on the Forbes list of the world's richest people. He'd need to roughly triple his wealth to make the vaunted Forbes 400.

Lazy journalism

So No. 1,150 ends up paired with the Koch Brothers (tied for fourth on the Forbes list) in stories that suggest that Big Oil and Big Recycling have reached political parity. This is lazy journalism, and a disservice that invites delusion on the environmental side.

A New York Times Magazine piece paired Steyer and the Kochs as mirror-image "billionaire oligarchs" vying for a Putin-like dominance over American society. 

But Steyer's political moves are fairly transparent; the Kochs are hidden by an assortment of front groups. Steyer courts the press, if sometimes maybe a bit too much; the Kochs run from it as if Wichita were Pyongyang. 

In a sidebar comparing their motives, Reporter Jim Rutenberg quotes Steyer from an actual interview. The Kochs rejected his interview requests, so he made their case by cribbing from Charles Koch's book and a company newsletter. I got your parity right here.

NPR belabored the Steyer-Kochs face-off. So did Politico, asserting Steyer has "hired well-known political operatives." As if that's what has led America into its current Good Government mojo. Steyer himself has been cornered into stories where he has to explain, "I am not a Koch."

A Greenwire story headed "Are money and power changing the environmental movement?" jumped the shark. Republican strategist Mike McKenna offered backhanded praise for environmental groups: "They've actually gotten legitimate guys involved." Thank you, Mike. I had no idea that the road to legitimacy passes through the Seventh Circle of Hell where the campaigns industry resides.

Not yet 'arrived'

But reports that the enviro movement has politically "arrived" are way ahead of schedule. Here's why it all matters on Election Day:

The Dems are hoping to eke out key races by a percentage point or two. And some of those candidates, like Mary Landrieu or Allison Lundergan Grimes, would rather be photographed next to a rail car full of hydrocarbons than next to Barack Obama.

Republicans, on the other hand, have it relatively easy. With a few exceptions like the Grimes-Mitch McConnell race in Kentucky, there's little risk this year for the hardnosed Congressional anti-science caucus. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the gold standard in climate denial, is running thirty points ahead of his Democratic opponent.

Over in the House, 17 of the 22 Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee don't accept the science on climate change. Florida Congressman Bill Posey is typical, with a 10-to-1 fundraising lead and an expected cakewalk win over Democrat Gabriel Rothblatt. In a committee hearing last March, Posey contributed an Al Gore joke, a reference to the infamous four-decade old Newsweek article on global cooling, and some extended hectoring of White House Science Advisor John Holdren, to the proceedings. His district is a NASA stronghold that includes the Kennedy Space Center. So Go, Science.

Talking the denier game

Chairman Lamar Smith self-identifies as a climate "skeptic" but talks a solid denier game. He has no opposition for re-election to his Texas seat. Randy Weber, who slyly offered to sell Holdren a winter coat in committee hearings, has a bigger fundraising margin and better prospects than Posey. 

Paul Broun, a Georgia physician who famously called evolution "Lies straight from the pit of hell" in a campaign speech two years ago, is leaving office after losing a Senate primary race. His likely replacement in Congress, if not on the committee, is a conservative radio talk show host named Jody Hice (Note to Daily Show: Watch this guy for future material). Former Committee chair Ralph Hall lost a GOP primary to someone even more conservative, but virtually all of the rest of the climate denial core on the Science Committee is very likely to return. Their committee assignments may change with the new Congress in January, but you get the picture.

So even if the Dems cling to a majority in the Senate -- and don't hold your breath -- the best outcome for environmentalists is that their increased sophistication will buy some time and some Beltway legitimacy. In 2013, the League of Conservation Voters scorecard saw the widest gulf between Republicans and Democrats ever, over 80%, with the GOP'ers bottoming out at a 5% score. In 1980, LCV's data had the two parties' environmental votes only 17% apart (Bonus: That year, LCV gave young congressman Newt Gingrich a 15% higher score than young congressman Al Gore). 

Immense partisan gulf

The partisan gulf is immense. It can't possibly grow a whole lot wider, but it's not narrowing, either. Throw in the impacts of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, unleashing wild campaign spending. Then throw in an addled news media.

Steyer may have gotten environmental politics into the big game. If the Senate stays in the Democrats' hands, he'll be a major reason why. But the big game is in the top of the first inning, and there are big bats, a huge payroll, and a different rulebook in effect in the other dugout. It's a way too soon for anyone to say the enviros are setting the outcome.