Reducing gun violence and curbing global warming are high priorities for most Democrats. So theoretically, they should be thrilled about plans by like-minded billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer to pour money into this year's midterm elections.
But there's a huge catch: The uber-rich pair could help Democrats lose the Senate and do worse than expected in the House.
Call it the luck of the Democrats. They get a couple of rich guys willing to target both Republicans and moderate Democrats who oppose their liberal agendas. The GOP gets the Kochs — a couple of hard-headed brothers who just want their side to win.
If Bloomberg and Steyer stick to primaries, that could be constructive in terms of furthering their agenda. Bloomberg managed to do just that two years ago in a California House race.
But there are few opportunities in Republican primaries, as party moderates dwindle (five are retiring so far this year), leaving ever fewer GOP members and candidates open to compromise. Nor are liberal Democrats rushing into primary challenges against fellow Democrats who are incompatible with Steyer and Bloomberg. In most cases, the only viable alternative to a Democratic cheerleader for coal, oil, or gun rights is a far more conservative Republican. And those Democrats are the ones most at risk in this year's plethora of red-state battlegrounds.
Not all of these moderately conservative Democrats will come under direct challenge by Steyer's NextGen Climate Action or Bloomberg's new Everytown for Gun Safety group. But the influx of money on climate and guns, whether it's for federal races, state races, or grassroots organizing, inevitably will shine a light on divisive issues and votes. The worst case for at-risk red-state Democrats is that it reminds swing voters of President Obama's gun and energy policies and turns them toward the GOP. A better case is that it reminds them that their home-state Democrats share their views and values. The best case for them would be if Bloomberg and Steyer spent the money — $50 million apiece plus millions more they intend to raise — for the Democratic candidates or against their opponents. Much more helpful, but not happening.
Given Republican resistance to even accepting that climate change exists, much less doing anything about it, Steyer knows that a Democratic Senate would be more receptive to his crusade. Still, he put endangered Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, a chief oil-and-gas industry ally, on a list of potential targets.
The Bloomberg group is even more cavalier about party majorities, though Democrats are twice as open as Republicans to tightening gun laws. "The Senate is controlled by the Democrats and we weren't able to pass background checks," John Feinblatt, a Bloomberg adviser and president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said Wednesday on a conference call. Feinblatt said Bloomberg could not be clearer: "He is going to hold people accountable when they vote against gun safety and he's going to reward those people who vote to keep Americans safer."
The Everytown launch came a year after the Senate's failure to pass a gun background-check expansion worked out by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. That's the major litmus test on guns. The corresponding test on climate is the Keystone XL gas pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, still awaiting a verdict of go or no-go from the Obama administration.
Six Senate Democrats up for re-election in races ranging from extremely tough to potentially tough — Landrieu, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Warner of Virginia — recently signed a letter urging Obama to approve Keystone. In addition, Landrieu just released an ad pronouncing Obama's policies "simply wrong when it comes to oil and gas production in this nation." Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, given a chance at ousting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has said she stands with Kentucky coal miners and not an administration that "has taken direct aim at Kentucky's coal industry." Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn, a strong contender for an open Senate seat, supports Keystone. They all look like Steyer-bait — even though, from Steyer's perspective, their GOP opponents would be far worse on climate issues.
Begich and Pryor are among the Democrats who voted against the Manchin-Toomey expansion of gun background checks. They are also two of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year. If their Republican opponents win, these GOP senators would surely be both further from Bloomberg's positions, and part of a new GOP Senate majority.
Bloomberg and Steyer are no doubt heroes to many liberals, but they are shaping up as the opposite to middle-of-the-road Democrats who don't vote their way. The two advocates clearly expect politicians from rural and energy-producing states to share their views, and to cast dangerous votes regardless of the consequences. Exhibit A is the Colorado legislature's move after Newtown to tighten gun restrictions. There was much praise for the state on the Everytown call, but no mention of the subsequent recalls that ousted two Democratic state senators and prompted a third to quit before the petition deadline.
Feinblatt and Shannon Watts say they are emphasizing state-level action in pursuit of gains such as a new law signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and a Washington state referendum this fall on background checks. "We are taking that to the states and eventually we think Congress will fall in line," said Watts, whose Moms Demand Action group has been folded into Everytown.
The irony is that Bloomberg and Steyer, by undermining some Democrats, could prolong the journey toward that day.
Jill Lawrence is an award-winning reporter and columnist. She has written for the National Journal, USA Today, The Associated Press, Al Jazeera America, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
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