The Biggest Political Donor of 2014 Is Not Who You Would Expect

The news: The biggest single donor during the 2014 election cycle hasn't been one of the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson or another conservative billionaire. It's hedge fund manager and climate change activist Tom Steyer, who's pouring an astonishing $36 million into seven states in a major effort to prove environmental issues matter to average Americans.

Bloomberg Politics reports that Steyer is "seeking to persuade voters that sound environmental policy will help the economy and protect public health" through his NextGen Climate Action super PAC. NetGen has raised $42.8 million during the 2014 election cycle, outstripping the the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC ($39.8 million) and Karl Rove's American Crossroads ($25.3 million)

Is this good news for liberals? The amount Steyer is dropping on climate change in 2014 rivals the Koch brothers' impressive $36.7 million war chest in 2012. Unlike the Kochs, all of his donations are being openly disclosed, so it's not like Steyer is doing anything shady and masking the source of his political donations. And according to the Center for Response Politics, the majority of political donations made by non-disclosing donors came from conservative groups:

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Steyer's political donations may serve as a test for liberals who rail against the influence of big money in politics. Will the same liberal activists who clamor for campaign finance reform apply the same criticism to Steyer, despite the fact that he's advocating for political action on climate change?

Source: CEPR

And here's 2012 spending from the super PACs created by Citizens United, with conservatives outspending liberals over 2:1:

Source: CEPR

Steyer might do some good in making climate change an issue in some competitive races, but big outside spenders have historically favored conservative candidates by significant margins.

Why you should care: So far in 2014, liberals are just about breaking even with conservatives in both the outside spending and super PAC categories. But taking this as an encouraging sign would be a mistake for the American left, whose goals ultimately won't be advanced by the takeover of electoral politics by the ultra-wealthy.

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin warns liberals that contributions like Steyer's shouldn't mislead them to conclude that the global warming debate "has somehow been a fair fight," because for the most part "check writers are the denialists." While it's nice that Steyer's slice of the 1% is going to a good cause, voters would do well to remember that the massive flow of money into politics ultimately hurts them big time.