How Billionaire Oligarchs Are Becoming Their Own Political Parties – NYTimes.com


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Charlie Crist (left) and Rick Scott (right). Credit Photo illustration by Craig Cutler. Crist: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Scott: Associated Press. Prop stylist: Randi Brookman Harris.

In August, Tom Steyer and seven campaign advisers sat in a small conference room in Coral Gables, Fla., trying to figure out how to save the world. Steyer, who is 57, has a fortune of roughly $1.5 billion, and his advisers were among the most talented political operatives in the United States. Steyer is especially concerned about climate change, and his immediate goal, the object of discussion that day, was to replace the sitting governor of Florida, Rick Scott, a Republican who has questioned the very existence of anthropogenic climate change, with Charlie Crist, the previous governor, whose environmental views hew more closely to Steyer’s.

The lead Florida strategist, Nick Baldick, was running through the campaign numbers. “There’s a problem here,” he said, brandishing a printout. Two bars, blue and red, were labeled “Total Raised,” and the red Republican bar was notably longer. “It’s just ugly,” Baldick said, with a shake of his head: “$74 million to Crist’s $24 million. And they have $38 million cash on hand to his $15 million.”

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Tom Steyer is expected to spend $50 million of his own money supporting candidates who have strong environmental records. Credit Ian Allen for The New York Times

In the spring, when Crist was riding a double-digit lead, Florida looked like a safe bet, but then Scott unleashed an $18 million ad campaign against Crist, painting him as a hack careerist who loves Obamacare and lays off teachers. Not only had Crist’s lead vanished, now he was losing in the key swing district of Tampa, winning by too little in Democrat-friendly West Palm and losing by too much in Republican-leaning Fort Myers. And as Baldick’s numbers showed, neither the state Democratic Party nor Crist could match the barrage.

Baldick is stocky and bald in the way that suggests he should always have a cigar jutting from his mouth. He is known in Democratic politics for his irascibility. It’s part act — political consultants make their trade in bad news — but he was truly annoyed this morning, he told me, largely because I was present at the meeting. Steyer and his communications team had invited me into their inner sanctum partly to make a point, namely that Steyer was more transparent than his rival powers, the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Baldick saw it as a needless risk. In his decades of experience (in the Clinton, Gore and Edwards presidential campaigns, to name a few), reporters were not invited into sensitive strategy sessions like this one. It wasn’t done and shouldn’t be done, he told me.

Steyer, though, saw visibility as part of the job. He made his money as the founder of a successful hedge fund called Farallon Capital Management and so had spent most of his adult life wading through prospectuses and annual reports. He seemed enthralled and energized by his new course of study in domestic politics, with its incongruent mix of idealism and cynicism. This was democracy in action, real people making real change, not just mysterious figures behind closed doors. Tall, with grayish blond hair and shaggy sideburns, Steyer was in constant motion: his arms waving, his hands slicing the air, his tie — always the same stiff, scotch plaid — swaying to and fro as he spoke. In talking about the political offshoots of his money, he sometimes had the air of a new father.

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Steyer’s long-term goal was to build an organization called NextGen Climate Action, which could mirror and oppose the rival private interests who devoted their own fortunes to blocking any action on climate change. Chief among those rivals were Charles and David Koch, the brothers who run Koch Industries. Steyer was especially interested in enacting a cap-and-trade system, which would allow companies to buy or sell emission rights under a strict state or federal limit. The Koch brothers, meanwhile, have worked hard to prevent, among many other government interventions, the adoption of a cap-and-trade system, which they view as the ultimate in reckless government intervention.

If Steyer didn’t step in as a counterweight, he reasoned, no one else would; after all, no one else had so far. Steyer pledged to spend at least $50 million of his own fortune this election season by way of NextGen on behalf of Democrats or, perhaps more accurate, against Republicans, in Florida and six other states: Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Most of the races were for the Senate, which Republicans are in a position to retake this fall. But the race that was closest to Steyer’s heart was here, in the state “most vulnerable to climate change,” as he put it; a crucial swing state where the Koch brothers had already spent millions to establish a political presence. Charlie Crist himself journeyed to NextGen’s San Francisco headquarters in June, to tell Steyer and many of these same strategists about sea-level rise in Miami, its troubling effects on drinking water and flood insurance and about the many ways in which he differed from Rick Scott. (“There couldn’t be a clearer choice,” Crist told me later. “I’m, like, the opposite of this guy.”)

Crist had been a Republican for most of his long career in Florida politics — as a state senator in 1992, as an education commissioner, as an attorney general — but after a single term as governor, during which he later claimed to have become increasingly alienated from a party that he described as “anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-education, anti-environment,” he sought an independent U.S. Senate seat instead. He lost that bid to Marco Rubio, and in 2012 he announced (via Twitter) that he had registered as a Democrat. In November 2013 after an encouraging meeting with Steyer, he announced that he would seek the governor’s seat again. In his last turn as governor, Crist took climate change seriously; he pushed through a law that authorized the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to develop a cap-and-trade system. Scott and the Legislature dismantled the law, and Scott redirected the agency instead to “ensure that Florida leads the nation in new partnerships between government and industry.”

At the cramped conference table, Baldick rattled off more news, both good and bad. A series of recent polls found that both candidates were extremely unlikable. (“Crist and Scott Could Make History by Being So Unpopular in Florida” was the headline of one recent report at FiveThirtyEight.com.) Baldick said this could actually be a positive development. “Both of them are not liked,” he explained, but “if you think people are going to show up because they hate, not love — I do — there’s more people who hate Scott.”

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Steyer leaned back in contemplation.

“You think that’s what gets people to vote?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, hate, fear —”

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Tim Phillips has taken dozens of hot-air balloon rides in an effort, backed by the Koch brothers, to defeat a cap-and-trade system for polluters. Credit Ian Allen for The New York Times

“The negative emotions,” Steyer said, radiating subtle disapproval.

Baldick gave him a look. “You can go with love,” he said, to which Steyer, playing along, quickly replied, “We’re from California, Nick.”

There were laughs all around. Baldick moved on to the results from a poll the team conducted of Hispanic voters, a demographic whose turnout on Election Day was a central element of the NextGen strategy. The good news was that environmental messaging did seem to make Hispanic voters turn away from Scott. The bad news was that this messaging made them no likelier to actually vote. The solution, Baldick informed Steyer, was to tie environmental issues to broader themes that are proven to bring voters to the polls, starting with the attack line — a shopworn one, but one that worked well against Mitt Romney in 2012 — that Scott is “not for you.” Baldick ticked off ways to bolster that pitch: “He cut education to pay for corporate tax cuts, he let polluters pollute the Everglades. . . .”

The poll did contain some welcome news about another group vital to Crist’s chances: Youth voters said they would respond directly to the climate issue by coming out to vote. “Not only do they understand it, but it impacts them,” Baldick said.

Steyer lit up. “Nick, if this really works, we should” — he waggled his hands above his ears in the universal gesture of going nuts — “as opposed to trying harder on something that’s not working.”

Newcomers to politics, especially baby boomers, are always excited about voters who are the same age as their children. Before the team could get into the nuances of motivating young people, an aide came in to say that Crist himself had just shown up for a scheduled session with Steyer. I imagined this meant our meeting was over; onetime governors are conditioned to expect that others will drop everything when they arrive. But Steyer wanted to hear more about the youth vote. Charlie Crist would have to wait.

In the winter of 2000, just as John McCain and George W. Bush were entering a pivotal series of Republican primaries, a mysterious new campaign ad appeared on television stations in New York, Ohio and California. The ad showed McCain’s disembodied head floating over belching smokestacks as a narrator intoned about votes McCain had made against solar and renewable-energy incentives — policies that in reality he had supported. The ad was sponsored by a group called Republicans for Clean Air.

The financial backers behind Republicans for Clean Air were the Texas billionaires Charles and Sam Wyly. They had a history of supporting Bush, but they were also heavily invested in a company seeking government-induced increases in alternative-energy production. The revelation that a single Texas family could so easily insert itself into the political process set off a round of frenzied indignation, and after McCain’s loss, it became crucial fodder for his effort to reform the national campaign-finance system. In 2002, along with a Democratic senator, Russell D. Feingold, he helped push a bill through Congress that ranked alongside some of the most sweeping efforts to contain “special interest” money in American history: the Tillman Act of 1907, which banned corporate contributions to candidates; the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, which prohibited union donations to candidates; and the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which placed strict limits on what individuals could give to parties and campaigns.

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Before 2002, parties could accept unlimited donations from individuals or groups (corporations, labor unions, etc.) so long as they devoted the funds — so-called “soft money” — to the amorphous act of “party building.” The McCain-Feingold law, as it came to be known, banned soft-money contributions, and it also prohibited political groups that operate outside the regulated system and its donation limits — like the Wylys and their Republicans for Clean Air — from running “issue ads” that appear to help or hurt a candidate close to an election. It implemented tough fines and even prison terms for those who illegally coordinated with the official campaigns.

In 2010, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court effectively blew apart the McCain-Feingold restrictions on outside groups and their use of corporate and labor money in elections. That same year, a related ruling from a lower court made it easier for wealthy individuals to finance those groups to the bottom of their bank accounts if they so chose. What followed has been the most unbridled spending in elections since before Watergate. In 2000, outside groups spent $52 million on campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, that number had increased to $1 billion.

The result was a massive power shift, from the party bosses to the rich individuals who ran the super PACs (as most of these new organizations came to be called). Almost overnight, traditional party functions — running TV commercials, setting up field operations, maintaining voter databases, even recruiting candidates — were being supplanted by outside groups. And the shift was partly because of one element of McCain-Feingold that remains: the ban on giving unlimited soft money to parties. In the party universe, rich players like the Wylys, Tom Steyer or the Kochs were but single planets among many. The party bosses had to balance their interests against those who brought just as much to the table in the form of money or votes. A party platform has to account for both the interests of the oil industry and those of the ethanol industry; those of the casino industry and those of the anti-gambling religious right; those of Wall Street and those of labor.

With the advent of Citizens United, any players with the wherewithal, and there are surprisingly many of them, can start what are in essence their own political parties, built around pet causes or industries and backing politicians uniquely answerable to them. No longer do they have to buy into the system. Instead, they buy their own pieces of it outright, to use as they see fit. “Suddenly, we privatized politics,” says Trevor Potter, an election lawyer who helped draft the McCain-Feingold law.

Now we have Michael Bloomberg, who has committed to spending $50 million to support gun-control legislation; his Independence USA PAC, meanwhile, is spending $25 million this fall to elect “centrists.” We have the TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his group Ending Spending, which has spent roughly $10 million so far this year to elect fiscal conservatives to Congress, an effort that has drawn support from the billionaire hedge-fund executive Paul E. Singer, who has also devoted tens of millions to Republican candidates who share his views on Israel. We have Mark Zuckerberg and his FWD.us, with a budget of about $50 million to push an immigration overhaul. In 2014, as of early October, when the campaigns had yet to do their big final pushes, overall spending was already more than $444 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Roughly $231 million was from the parties and their congressional committees, the rest from outside spending. The biggest chunk of that by far came from super PACs — more than $196 million. Looking at those numbers, it’s not hard to understand why Crist was willing to wait outside a conference room in Coral Gables for Steyer.

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Steyer, with his $50 million pledge, is one of the most deep-pocketed political arrivistes. But he has a long way to go to catch up with the Koch brothers, whose own group, Americans for Prosperity, already has political operations in every state that Steyer is contesting, along with 28 others. The group says it will spend at least $125 million this year.

The president of Americans for Prosperity is Tim Phillips. Tall and fit at 50, Phillips holds forth with evident delight, betraying the slight accent of his native South Carolina, on whatever topic is at hand. (A somewhat larger than usual breakfast, for instance, earns an emphatic “I’m in awe of our country at this moment.”) After attending Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Phillips worked on several congressional races before starting a consulting firm with the Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. The Kochs hired Phillips in 2005 to make Americans for Prosperity into a force that could defeat liberalism and elect true free-market conservatives — ones who understood that when business gets hurt, people lose jobs and the country suffers — and make them pay a price if they strayed. (David Koch is the chairman of the group’s foundation, while Charles Koch has no formal role.)

Americans for Prosperity started small, with an effort in Charles Koch’s home state of Kansas to defeat a proposed tax increase; it then moved on to spearhead a quixotic fight against the teachers’ union over pay in Wisconsin. As recently as 2008, the group’s activities were negligible, and it had just $7 million in its operating budget, according to its Internal Revenue Service filing. But after Citizens United, donations poured in. In 2012, it raised $115 million. It is impossible to know the identities of the donors, though the group’s annual closed-door conferences are regularly attended by many of the biggest conservative donors in the country, including the hedge-fund executive Foster Friess and the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Where does the money go? Americans for Prosperity obviously spends a lot on television, but it also maintains offices in 35 states with 600 paid staff members. The group funds phone banks, big-ticket events and many other details like beer cozies and water bottles. Its biggest chapter is in Florida, where its 50 paid staff members work out of 10 offices and constitute a year-round organization that rivals that of the state Republican Party.

The A.F.P. offices are in the same brick corporate campus in Arlington, Va., that housed George W. Bush’s campaign in 2004. The narrow white hallways and gray cubicles would be somewhat grim if not for Phillips’s insistence that each staff member place an image of something he or she holds dear on their nameplates (a pinup of the actress Jane Russell, the logo of the University of Virginia or, on Phillips’s own door, a photo of the band U2, with his own head pasted atop Bono’s body). A.F.P. operates at such a low hum that it would have been hard to guess, at the moment I was visiting, how many different operations its staff members were overseeing simultaneously. There was a $1 million ad buy criticizing the Democrat Mark Begich in Alaska, as well as a new ad campaign against Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado. There was a series of rallies attacking the Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley in Iowa and a door-knocking campaign for Rick Scott.

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Then there was the balloon. Phillips pointed to a photograph on the wall, depicting a scene from an event Americans for Prosperity held in Bozeman, Mont., in 2009: a 70-foot balloon awaiting takeoff. “We called it the ‘Cost of Hot Air,’ ” Phillips said. At the time, A.F.P. was trying to counter the movement to establish a cap-and-trade system. Many Republicans, including John McCain, supported such a system, and a bipartisan implementation of it seemed likely upon Obama’s election. A.F.P.’s balloon was part of a national tour to block it. “We put on the side of the balloon: ‘Cap and trade means: higher taxes, lost jobs, less freedom’ — six words.” It made dozens of trips, including one over Al Gore’s house in Tennessee. All the while, Americans for Prosperity, joined by other conservative groups, directed ads and phone calls pressuring lawmakers to vote against the major cap-and-trade bill when it came up for a vote in 2009; Phillips helped to rebrand the bill more negatively as “cap and tax.” It died in the Senate, and support for cap-and-trade among Republican officeholders fell to a negligible level, where it remains today. “I rode more hot-air balloons in that year-and-a-half period than I ever want to ride again,” Phillips said. “I do not like hot-air balloons.”

In the group’s efforts on behalf of Scott, Phillips says, the most important factor is the growth of the volunteer base of Americans for Prosperity, which it now numbers into the tens of thousands. The first lesson of party politics is that winning elections means getting out the vote, and getting out the vote means signing up volunteers. Phillips spends a lot of time thinking about what will keep them happy.

Given their negatives, neither Scott nor Crist was going to win by sweeping new converts off their feet. Big spending on television was certainly threatening to make a difference for Scott. But if Crist could catch up on TV, with Steyer’s help, the election was going to be decided by which side did a better job of identifying new sympathetic voters and then prodding them out to the polls. It required the hard work of knocking on doors, which can be especially brutal under the hot Florida sun.

The movement is independent of the party, which is the way Phillips wants it. When Rick Scott said he would support an expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, Americans for Prosperity let him know about its displeasure through a deluge of phone calls and letters and even a protest at the State Capitol. Scott ultimately made no effort to push it through the Legislature, many of whose Republican members have been supported by the group as well. “I think he started hearing from some other voices, A.F.P. and some of the other organizations,” Chris Hudson, the group’s Florida director, had said, “and I think they sort of superseded what was going on in his own staff.”

Phillips said the group’s volunteers would have it no other way. “They have to feel like the organization is genuinely a principled outfit,” he said. “If they think you’re just an appendage of the party, they can go to the party. Why do they need you?”

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Later in August, Kat Taylor, who has been married to Tom Steyer for 28 years, offered to show me around TomKat Ranch, the family’s 1,800-acre spread on the central California coast, and talk about how the family had become involved in climate politics. Taylor, 56, is slight yet muscular, with short and wavy gray hair and a tattoo of a flowering vine around her impressive biceps. She spends part of her week overseeing the ranch, and its 130 head of grass-fed cattle, but most of her time is spent running the community bank that she and Steyer founded in 2007, when all four of their children were older and more independent. Taylor supported Steyer in his latest political mission, she said, even after he told her, “This is going to give us a lot more visibility, and it won’t all be positive.”

Still, she was bothered by the questioning of his motives and the occasional charges of hypocrisy from the press and his political enemies. Yes, she patiently explained to me, Steyer’s firm made many millions from investments in coal mines and coal-fired power plants in Asia and Australia, as it had in all sorts of other industries. But that was long before he came to believe that the fate of the planet depended upon curbing carbon emissions, and he has since divested his personal portfolio of any fossil-fuel-related investments. Taylor had also learned to deflect the inevitable questions about whether he was preparing his own run for office. (“I don’t think he thinks that’s the right priority right now,” she said.)

Steyer has been involved in politics for years. He was a major fund-raiser for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and in 2006 worked closely with Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist, to defeat a Republican effort to change California’s electoral-college rules. (Lehane has been acting as Steyer’s personal political strategist ever since.) In 2012, though, Steyer read an essay in Rolling Stone (“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”), in which Bill McKibben, the writer and climate activist, suggested that fossil-fuel interests had too much money at stake to let the political system do anything about carbon emissions. The only alternative, McKibben wrote, was a mass movement, and the only way to start a mass movement was to articulate a consistent, fact-based moral argument for change. At that moment, Taylor said, “Tom realized that the climate threat was near, present, imminent, massive — and aggravates every other crisis, whether it’s hunger or civil rights.” He had to do something different. So a few months later he and Taylor invited McKibben to the ranch for a war council.

We were in the ranch’s spartan barn house when Taylor recounted this. The council had been right there, beneath the reclaimed wood beams. Lehane was there, and so was John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff who would later join the Obama White House as an adviser. They all considered various ways to act. They agreed, finally, that Steyer should try a few experiments, but should come out with particular force against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would link oil-rich Canadian sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. In March 2013, Steyer sent a letter to Stephen Lynch, a Democratic congressman and pipeline supporter who was considering a run against Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The letter demanded that Lynch renounce his support for Keystone by “high noon Friday” or face aggressive opposition. It was an obvious stunt, but it got attention. Lynch declared that “billionaires won’t shove me around”; Steyer responded by providing Lynch’s primary opponent, Ed Markey, an anti-Keystone congressman, with nearly $700,000 in campaign support. Markey, who said he did not want Steyer’s help, won handily. In Virginia that same year, Steyer bought $8 million in television ads and mailings to highlight the climate-change skepticism of the Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli. The Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic Party, won by 2.5 percentage points.

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How much credit Steyer can claim in either of these victories is debatable. But by early 2014, just about every Democrat considering a competitive run this year, including Charlie Crist, had made a pilgrimage to see Steyer in San Francisco. And in April, the State Department announced it would delay its decision on Keystone XL pending an analysis of expected legal challenges.

It was a victory, but it did not necessarily echo the consistent, moral argument of McKibben’s initial call. As we spoke, NextGen was spending about $100,000 to build and operate a wooden Noah’s Ark on wheels that it would drive around the state, taunting Scott for his failure to address climate change. It was also spending $2 million on an ad campaign that blamed Scott for the failure of Duke Energy, a major Scott contributor, to upgrade one nuclear power plant and build another, for which it had to increase utility fees, despite the fact that Scott had no direct say over this decision. Even beyond the publicity stunts and elisions of fact, NextGen’s campaign largess was itself a capitulation to the post-Citizens United world. Steyer was applying pressure to the political system in a way no average American could. It seemed undemocratic. But Steyer saw it as simple pragmatism; the other side was “playing multiples,” he said, and he had to operate “in the real world the way the real world works.”

Our tour wound down in front of a long, waist-high granite pool filled with koi, the remains of an unsuccessful attempt at sustainable fish farming that now doubled as a huge outdoor dining table. As we stood beside it, Taylor told me about charts she had seen, apparently online, placing Steyer at the center of a web of liberal interests: a conservative answer to the many liberal diagrams of “The Kochtopus.” The connections were all real, or at least many of them were. That was the whole point of playing multiples. But the comparison seemed to bother her. “There’s a private empire and the Earth,” she said. The Earth was there for all of us.

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“And the private empire is?” I asked.

“Private.”

And it was true. But it was also undeniable that Steyer presided over an empire of his own that, for all his transparency, was not quite public.

The environmental impact of the Koch family is not entirely an abstract question. Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in the country, and its holdings include oil refineries, oil-services companies and one of the nation’s biggest fertilizer manufacturers. Another Koch property is the paper-goods producer Georgia-Pacific, whose plant in Palatka, Fla. — at the end of the narrow Rice Creek tributary of the St. Johns River — is seen by Scott opponents as an object lesson in how political donations can materially affect the planet.

In July, I went to see the plant with Lisa Rinaman, who heads an environmental group called St. Johns Riverkeeper, and two of her local friends, Sam Carr and Robert Virnstein. Because the plant, a hulking pale green structure festooned with smokestacks and rusting steel drums, is closed to outsiders, we approached it by water, in Virnstein’s pontoon boat. Georgia-Pacific employs 1,000 people at the plant, which produces Brawny paper towels and Angel Soft bathroom tissue. The plant also has a state permit to disperse certain amounts of wastewater into the creek. As such, Rinaman takes occasional boat trips to the plant, like this one, to keep a careful eye on the consequences. It’s work that she does not trust the state to do under Rick Scott.

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In Rinaman’s view, the Kochs have reason to be bullish on Scott. More than a decade earlier, before Koch Industries owned it, Georgia-Pacific ran into trouble with state and federal regulators over the pollution from its mill on Rice Creek. The plant’s salty, dioxin-tainted wastewater was creating a putrid odor — “It was horrendous,” Carr said. “Oh, God. You’d come over the bridge and the smell was just unbelievable” — and worse, it was leading to “masculinization” among the creek’s native mosquito fish. The regulators settled on a solution that left environmentalists even more alarmed. Georgia-Pacific would need to take specific steps in an attempt to bring its pollution in the creek into compliance with clean-water standards. But if those steps failed, it was to then divert the wastewater to the much larger (and therefore more dilutive) St. Johns River, an ecological treasure. “It was one of those slap-in-the-face rulings,” Rinaman said.

Koch Industries bought the plant in 2005. Georgia-Pacific says that the $200 million in improvements that it completed were roughly twice the outlay that had been required by state and federal regulators. Even environmentalists saluted the effort. “Now, this is one of my favorite fishing holes,” Carr said as we sat on the creek. As if on cue, a giant alligator splashed in the water in front of us. “That was a big one!”

But even though the creek was cleaner, the plant’s pollutants were still above legal limits. So Georgia-Pacific, convinced it had done all it could and eager to move on, began making plans to build a $30 million pipeline to the St. Johns River. The Crist administration refused to grant it a permit to use the pipeline until it cleared a few more hurdles; these included a new kind of dioxin test that the state Department of Environmental Protection promoted as more sensitive than those commonly in use, but which was not validated under state rules. Georgia-Pacific, arguing that it should be required only to use formally sanctioned tests, managed to resist using the new method through the end of Crist’s term.

Crist had appointed two successive heads of the Department of Environmental Protection, both trained scientists with decades of experience in environmental policy. When Rick Scott took office, his choice for the post was Herschel Vinyard, an executive with a military contractor called BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards; previously, he had been a corporate lawyer specializing in regulatory issues. One of Crist’s environmental appointees said the department would be primarily concerned with “ensuring Florida’s dynamic natural resources, state lands, waterbodies and beaches are protected”; Crist himself challenged the department to create “a strategy to protect our state from the effects of climate change.” The Scott administration, by contrast, described Vinyard’s mission as “protecting the natural resources of Florida, while creating the best possible mechanisms for job creation in the state.”

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Nearly every initiative related to climate change was dropped. Vinyard laid off 58 employees and declared a “time out” on the state policy of purchasing ecologically sensitive land for protection. He also worked with the State Legislature to change the rules for environmental permits, shifting the burden of proof onto groups trying to block them. To the dismay of many editorial boards across the state, he instituted a bonus system that encouraged workers to expedite the process by which companies received permits of every kind.

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Charlie Crist Credit Ian Allen for The New York Times

One company to which Vinyard granted a permit was Georgia-Pacific — the permit it had been seeking for many years under the Crist administration. The Department of Environmental Protection under Scott required some containment and monitoring measures that environmentalists had sought — officials of the department say it was among the strictest permits they had ever issued — but not the extra dioxin test. The Legislature also passed a provision banning the state from requiring any environmental test that was not on its officially recognized list. In Rinaman’s view, this language seemed suspiciously designed to exclude the test that the Crist administration had been pushing on Georgia-Pacific. Scott signed the provision into law; he also instituted a freeze on any new regulations, and then shed existing regulations by the hundreds.

Scott’s deregulatory efforts did not go unnoticed. Americans for Prosperity invited Scott to speak at the group’s Defending the Dream summit in 2013. “Here we are, two and a half years into his term, and he’s created more than 370,000 jobs in the state of Florida,” Slade O’Brien, the Florida director of the group at the time, said by way of introduction. “And one of the ways he did that was by eliminating over 1,000 burdensome regulations.” When Scott spoke, he noted that the number had grown to 2,600.

At a NextGen fund-raiser in July, the host, Mitchell Berger, a prominent Florida lawyer, told a group of wealthy Democratic donors in Miami that the choice was stark: New ideas and new energy in direct combat with the old coal and gas barons — “Tom Steyer versus the Koch brothers, right?” Steyer, in the speech that followed, offered a gentle corrective to this. It was not just about him, he said; he was hoping like-minded donors would join him. Right now, climate change is nowhere near the top of the list of items that motivate people to vote. He knew that he would never create the sense of a consensus for action if only one billionaire was behind it.

Near the end of September, as the race was entering its final phase, Steyer met once again with his team, this time in a borrowed conference room on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa. NextGen data showed that in total, Crist and the local Democrats had raised $44.4 million; that was roughly half what Scott and the Republicans had raised, but still good news, considering how far down Crist had been just a few months before. The money was flowing. The Florida Democratic Party, still the big player, had spent $16.8 million thus far, and the Crist campaign was just behind, with $16.4 million. NextGen was in for $7 million so far, and about to commit to $5 million more.

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Steyer got good value for his money. Crist now held a three-point lead in a head-to-head race; he and Scott were tied at 41 percent when the Libertarian candidate, Alfred Adrian Wyllie, was included. In the three markets where NextGen was advertising in August — Tampa, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach — Crist had moved into a lead of 2 percentage points from what two months earlier had been a deficit of 8. The Duke Energy ad, in particular, had been effective in dampening Scott’s support in Tampa. Scott had just $4 million more in his cash reserves than Crist, and Baldick predicted that Scott, who had a large personal fortune, might eventually be forced to cut himself a check.

“I mean, the bottom line is that what we did worked and worked in a fairly significant way,” his pollster, Geoff Garin, said.

“Yeah,” Steyer said, “it feels good.”

In fact, though, Steyer seemed tired. He had been traveling across the country, visiting his battleground states. He was also, as he would learn the following day, suffering from a kidney stone.

The campaign seemed to have pushed Scott to temper his image on environmental policy. Scott announced that he would reverse some of his earlier cuts to springs protection and the state’s land-buying conservation program. He also said he would get tougher on polluters. He had even agreed to meet with a group of scientists who offered to explain to him why so many of them thought climate change was a genuine threat. (The scientists were disappointed by the meeting, though; during its 30-minute duration, the governor did not ask a single question about the climate.)

With six weeks left before Election Day, NextGen and Americans for Prosperity were each gearing up for aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts, befitting their strange new role as political parties in all but name. A.F.P. had spent the year visiting 280,000 households as part of a “voter education” program, knocking on doors and leaving door-handle placards: “Thank you Gov. Scott for creating jobs.” Chris Hudson, the group’s Florida director, said he expected to follow up with as many as 120,000 of them before Nov. 4.

In Tampa, Steyer and his team were tending to some details about their last-minute commercial blitz. The Crist campaign, Baldick said, had asked if they would extend their advertising in Fort Myers and Tampa; he suggested Steyer do Tampa, but skip Fort Myers. The additional $2 million for new television and online ads would come out of Steyer’s own pocket. The big-money donors that he had hoped would join him had not yet materialized, at least as of mid-September, when federal and Florida election filings showed that Steyer had provided $31.6 million of the $35 million NextGen raised nationwide.

After the meeting, Steyer sat down with 10 student volunteers in the University of South Florida alumni hall. They told him about their interest in solar power and restoring sea grass, their hopes to reduce emissions in India and oil dependence in Trinidad. Steyer could not have been happier. “The younger you are, the more you agree, the more urgent you think it is,” he told them.

By the time he stood up and took a few of them to a NextGen call center near campus, the exhaustion I’d seen in him earlier that day had dissipated. The swing was back in his arms, in his gait. He took his place beside the students to hit the phones. This was democracy at work. “I know you’re in the checkout line, but. . . .” he said to one contact who picked up. Then, to another he said, “If you can believe it, I’m the person who started NextGen Climate Action.”

Correction: October 17, 2014

An earlier version of a map with this article misspelled the name of a senator for New Hampshire. She is Jeanne Shaheen, not Shasheen.


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