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Rich donors press Democrats on climate change

Take up fight against global warming

Senate majority leader Harry Reid has pledged to allot time to anyone who wants to discuss climate change at party lunches or on the Senate floor.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A recent Democratic fund-raiser at billionaire Tom Steyer’s home amounted to a summit between Washington’s liberal elite and San Francisco’s climate intelligencia.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, six other senators, and a 2014 Senate candidate took in views of the Golden Gate Bridge with former vice president Al Gore and some of the nation’s richest environmentalist donors.

The $400,000 fund-raiser, held for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, included remarks from Gore, who said the party needs to make global warming a central issue during the midterms, participants said. And Gore called Steyer, who has vowed to raise at least $100 million,”Mr. Tipping Point.’’


‘‘How do you inject this into the debate in a meaningful way?’’ Steyer said in an interview during a visit to Washington, where he lobbied a gathering of Democratic governors. ‘‘That changes what can happen in Washington, D.C.’’

With the end of President Obama’s tenure now in sight, wealthy environmentalists are pushing Democrats to take bolder positions on climate change — vowing to emphasize the issue in swing-state contests and threatening to withhold money from candidates who support the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

In the Senate, Reid has pledged to allot time to anyone who wants to discuss climate change at party lunches or on the Senate floor. Senator Barbara Boxer of California, a Democrat, is laying plans for an all-night talkathon on the subject.

‘‘What was really energizing is everyone understood clean energy would be at the forefront of the Senate agenda,’’ Wade Randlett, a renewable energy entrepreneur who co-hosted the San Francisco fund-raiser, said by e-mail. ‘‘It wasn’t back-away; it was clearly lean-in.’’

But the Democratic Party’s relationship with the environmental movement remains fraught — torn between fervent believers and centrists reluctant to go against traditional energy industry interests that play a major role in their state’s economies.


Most of the Democratic candidates facing the toughest Senate races at the moment are in states that traditionally favor the fossil fuel industry, including Alaska, Louisiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Republicans argue that the issue is a losing one for Democrats, who will be seen as siding with environmental extremists. In Kentucky, the US Chamber of Commerce has run ads touting how Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is ‘‘fighting back, fighting hard’’ against EPA rules limiting carbon emissions.

And in Alaska, Americans for Prosperity, a prominent conservative group, said it will start airing a statewide TV ad criticizing Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, for supporting a carbon tax.

Rob Collins, of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats will regret giving climate activists an outsized role in the elections.

‘‘Extremism in general-election politics is always a dangerous thing, especially when it’s in the hands of a small group of people with a lot of money,’’ Collins said .

Steyer’s advocacy group, NextGen Political Action, plans to spend $50 million of the former hedge-fund manager’s money, plus another $50 millionfrom other donors. The group will refuse to spend money on behalf of Democrats who oppose climate regulation, but will not spend money against them, according to Chris Lehane, a Steyer consultant.