Hoping to incite a blue wave in Arizona, billionaire mega-donor Tom Steyer will pour at least $2 million into state elections this year.
Steyer’s youth vote program will focus on keeping Democratic control of Arizona’s 1st and 9th Congressional Districts and flipping the 2nd Congressional District seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican running for U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat.
Steyer is also aiming to propel Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to victory in the open U.S. Senate race and unseat Gov. Doug Ducey, who is up for re-election this year.
While Steyer has poured money into Democratic causes for several election cycles, this will mark the first year Arizona will be included in Steyer’s youth organizing movement NextGen Rising. Steyer is investing $30 million in 10 states to push Democrats to victory in the midterm elections.
“We’ll see if we’re right, but we think that there is an aura around Arizona being a bright red state that is out of date,” Steyer said in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times.
Steyer’s strategy is to get young voters, largely those on college campuses and those between the ages of 18 and 35, registered to vote and politically engaged. Polls show President Donald Trump is especially unpopular among young voters, who tend to skew more liberal.
The Democratic activist, who made his wealth managing a hedge fund, may have political aspirations of his own. Steyer’s campaign to impeach President Donald Trump and his recently launched series of town hall meetings with voters have boosted speculation that he may run for president in 2020.
NextGen Arizona already has 19 paid staffers on the ground, and they expect to have 55 in the state by November. In addition to targeting nearly 800,000 young voters through direct mail and digital advertising, NextGen will work on 24 Arizona college campuses, including 12 community colleges and Diné College.
Arizona GOP spokeswoman Ayshia Connors called Steyer’s plans a waste of money.
“We are aware that he’s doing this and launching campaigns here to try and butt in, but every time he sticks his nose into business in other states it hasn’t paid off for him,” she said.
The conservative Koch Brothers have their own youth organizing group called Generation Opportunity, a sister organization to Americans for Prosperity. But the Arizona chapter has no plans to get involved in 2018 elections at this time, said Chalon Hutson, the group’s field director.
NextGen prides itself on using new digital strategies and unique tactics to appeal to millennial voters.
On Tuesday, the group will hold a music festival at Northern Arizona University and host a petting zoo at Arizona State University to entice students to register to vote.
But NextGen doesn’t forsake traditional get-out-the-vote strategies. The group plans to knock on at least 43,000 doors, and will focus on issues such as immigration, access to affordable healthcare, making higher education more affordable and climate change.
Funneling young voters’ passion on the issues incites them to vote in large, statewide races, but also gets them fired up about down ballot races and initiatives, Steyer said.
“The great thing about doing grassroots [organizing], particularly for young voters, is it’s really a turnout question to a great extent,” Steyer said. “If you get people into the issues, if you get people engaged in the political process and they subsequently participate at the polls, then they’re going to vote in every single one of those elections.”
Steyer has seen mixed results with his NextGen program. While the organization saw great success in Virginia in 2016, the group has suffered political losses in some redder states.
In Virginia last year, the youth vote program helped catapult Democrat Ralph Northam to victory in the governor’s race and played a role in electing an unprecedented number of Democrats to Virginia’s House of Delegates — drastically altering the makeup of the state legislature. Young voters, who are typically fair-weather voters, turned out in record numbers.
NextGen will base its Arizona strategy off what they did in Virginia, but the progressive political group will have more time in this state. NextGen embedded in Virginia approximately four months before the general election. Seven months out from the general election, NextGen is already making its presence known in Arizona.
Tom Steyer is also pushing a renewable energy ballot initiative that would force Arizona utilities to get half their energy from renewable sources by 2030. Getting the 225,953 valid signatures by July 5 to put the measure on the ballot will likely cost millions, but climate issues are near and dear to Steyer’s advocacy. He initially formed NextGen Climate (now NextGen America) as an initiative to fight climate change.
But Arizona utilities are putting up a fight against Steyer’s Clean Energy for Healthy Arizona Amendment. The state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service Co., worked with lawmakers to pass legislation that would essentially nullify the ballot measure by reducing the fines on utility companies failing to comply down to a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $500.
APS also crafted it’s own ballot initiative that on paper, looks nearly identical to the clean energy amendment, but gives electric utilities an out because it prohibits the Arizona Corporation Commission from implementing the renewable energy mandate should it have any effect on customers’ bills.
“Obviously, it’s a very confusing time because of what APS has done,” Steyer said. “They’re making this a very confusing thing.”
Steyer’s initiative would tie the commission’s hands, but the opposing ballot measure empowers the corporation commission to do what they were authorized to do by evaluating energy projects and regulating utilities, said Arizonans for Affordable Energy spokesman Matt Benson.
The APS-backed measure is still making its way through the legislature.
“I think the point is to give voters a choice and to highlight for voters the unintended consequences of approving Tom Steyer’s initiative, Benson said.
Should both initiatives make it on the November ballot, the one with the most votes will become law.