Anti-Trump hedge fund manager takes fight to swing states

Tom Steyer
Anne Cusack | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

San Francisco billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has been among the biggest financiers of the anti-Trump movement through his California-based political action committee.

Now, with the presidential election tightening, he's ramping up spending nationally by funding ad campaigns in five swing states.

NextGen Climate Action, an environmental advocacy group founded by Steyer in 2013, has spent $300,000 since July 8, running digital ads that target 18- to 35- year-olds in Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. That accounts for almost half of the 11 battleground states that could go to either Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on the Republican side in November, according to YouGov.

Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital, has been active in California politics for well over a decade, serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 2004 and 2008. He left Farallon in 2012 and is president of NextGen Climate. 

Steyer's philanthropic work has focused largely on environmental protection, and in 2010 he and his wife signed onto Warren Buffett's "Giving Pledge," committing to give the majority of their wealth to charity. 

Four years later, Steyer was the single largest donor to outside organizations in the midterm elections, giving $73.7 million to liberals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Steyer's groups — NextGen California and NextGen Climate — have spent $5.1 million opposing Trump in this cycle, fourth highest among organizations, based on data from CRP. Almost half of that money has been spent in the past 11 days. 

In total, outside groups have spent $71 million opposing Trump, compared with the $57 million in favor of the New York real estate magnate. By contrast, outside organizations have spent $10 million against Clinton and $17 million supporting the former first lady.

Headed into this week's Republican National Convention, Clinton led 46 percent to 41 percent over Trump, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. 

For the next two weeks, NextGen Climate will be putting money to work, targeting relevant potential voters on Facebook, Instagram and in display ads across the web, said Ben Wessel, the group's millennial vote director. NextGen Climate produced four 15-second video ads, two that are blatantly anti-Trump and the other two that Wessel calls more "aspirational."

One of the videos says Trump is supported by white supremacists and that he "wants to ban Muslims from entering America," and another calls his energy plan, which includes dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, reckless and dangerous. The slightly more subtle ads promote the idea of voting for "love and respect" and for candidates who support clean energy.

The goal, Wessel said, is to get people to watch the videos and respond by signing up and providing an email address or mobile phone number. From there, the campaign can send more personalized messages based on how people engage. The next ad may be an invitation to a local fundraiser or volunteer event.

"It's a fun opportunity for us to explore a bunch of different ways to talk to people," Wessel said. "We're saying, `Hey let's have a real frank conversation about where candidates stand on these issues.'"

A Trump spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment.

Top individuals funding outside spending groups

Donor Organization Total (mlns) Liberals / Conservatives
Tom SteyerNextGen$24.04liberals
Robert MercerRenaissance Tech$17.17conservatives
Richard UihleinUline$12.66conservatives
George SorosSoros Fund$12.03liberals
Paul SingerElliott Mgmt$11.97conservatives
Haim & Cheryl SabanSaban Capital$11.10liberals
Fred EychanerNewsweb$11.05liberals
Donald SussmanPaloma Partners$10.70liberals
Farris & Jo Ann WilksWilks Brothers$10.13conservatives
James & Marilyn SimonsRenaissance / Simons$10.13liberals

Steyer is nowhere near finished. He said in April that NextGen Climate would spend $25 million to get out the vote, and that's about how much he's donated to the group since May 2015, according to CRP. The plan is to reach 203 colleges and universities in seven states — Illinois and Iowa and the five mentioned above. 

"This election is likely to offer the starkest contrast between presidential candidates that's been offered for many decades," Steyer said in a blog post at the time. "But it matters to young people the most — the world they're inheriting is at stake."

For its digital ad-buying campaign, NextGen is working with Bully Pulpit Interactive, the Washington-based firm that led Barack Obama's 2008 digital marketing effort. Bully Pulpit is listed as the recipient of 96 percent of the money NextGen Climate has spent. 

Russ Fagaly, NextGen's digital director, said the strategy is to combine geographic information with data on where targets spend time online to provide a "way to think about how to find, reach and talk to those people."

In addition to stopping Trump, the focus is on states with competitive U.S. Senate races that, depending on who wins, could influence the direction of the climate-change debate. It's Steyer's pet issue, and he's convinced that young people similarly see climate change as the most critical challenge facing the world and one that requires solutions in the form of alternative energy and carbon reduction.

"Millennials are overwhelmingly on his side," said Wessel. "What he's excited about is having a conversation about stopping Trump and having a very electoral aim."

Clarifies earlier version of this story to show that Steyer left Farallon in 2012.