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America's Richest Political Activists Pour Money Into SuperPACs


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Some of America's richest political activists are pouring money into new SuperPACs as they seek to influence the issues in upcoming Senate and House races. Billionaires including Sheldon Adelson, the Koch Brothers, and Fred Eychaner used SuperPACs to support their favored presidential candidates in 2012.

Now add to that list hedge-fund billionaires Thomas Steyer and Paul Singer. They are among those deploying their money to promote their agendas. We'll hear from Tom Steyer in a few moments. He wants to make climate change a defining issue for Democrats. First, here's NPR's Peter Overby with a look at what Steyer and Singer are doing.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Tom Steyer used to run a hedge fund. Then he quit with about $1.5 billion and set out to break Washington's gridlock on climate change. Chris Lehane once worked for Al Gore, an advocate of climate change action. Now he's Steyer's political adviser. He says the price tag for Steyer's effort starts around $50 million.

CHRIS LEHANE: Hey, $100 million, if not more, is a pretty good deal if you're going to try to save the planet.

OVERBY: Last year's gubernatorial race in Virginia was a test run. Steyer's organization got a list of 250,000 unlikely voters. Lehane says they identified voters who cared about climate change.

LEHANE: We targeted them by going door to door, we targeted them with mail, we targeted them by having members from their community have conversations with them.

OVERBY: And on Election Day...

LEHANE: Somewhere around 55,000 to 65,000 voters actually showed up and voted.

OVERBY: If they all voted for Democrat Terry McAuliffe, that would more than account for his winning margin. But Steyer's message isn't always about climate change. This ad, online now, is about the Keystone XL pipeline. But it also invokes American fears of Chinese ascendency.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The oil lobbyists and politicians - they take Americans for suckers. Keystone means more profit for investors like China, more power for their economy, and more carbon pollution for the world.

OVERBY: As for Paul Singer, one of the leading conservatives in the hedge fund world, he's at odds with the Republican Party on some big issues such as gay rights. He has a joint fundraising committee steering money to Republicans going after Democratic Senate seats. He also has a superPAC that can put out its own message. Donors include other prominent conservatives in the finance industry.

Viveca Novak is with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign cash. She says Singer seems to be sending a message.

VIVECA NOVAK: That this is a group of serious people with serious money, and they don't necessarily want to rely on the party to get the message out.

OVERBY: Singer's organization didn't respond last week to interview requests. Ray La Raja is a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says the rise of crusading billionaires raises concerns about the political system.

RAY LA RAJA: It's not corruption in the quid pro sense, but it's this kind of scare tactics: We'll make you listen to us because we can throw $100 million in this race.

OVERBY: He says billionaires can replace the party in setting the agenda for a race.

LA RAJA: If you have a lot of money, you say this is what I want to do. There's no willingness to compromise. And it's like putting a pistol to someone's head. Here we go.

OVERBY: And candidates who go up against this would do so at their own peril. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.