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Democrats Learn To Love Billionaire Hedge Fund Donors

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WASHINGTON -- A hedge fund manager is pledging to spend $100 million in an effort to tip the balance of congressional elections and advance his personal agenda. And Democrats couldn't be more ecstatic.

Tom Steyer is not one of the Koch brothers, the energy tycoons who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to elect Republicans and rid the country of Obamacare. Tom Steyer is not Paul Singer, the New York-based hedge fund manager who has bankrolled conservative causes and, more recently, helped pass marriage equality in his home state.

Steyer is a Californian, a billionaire and an environmentalist. This past week, he became one of the biggest fundraisers in Democratic circles, fêting Democratic senators at his San Francisco home and pledging to spend $50 million of his own money -- to be matched by $50 million in donations -- on ads pushing tougher action on climate change.

For lawmakers who have spent the past few years warning about the pernicious influence of money in politics, Steyer's entrance into the world of mega-donors would seem to present a tricky proposition. A counterweight against the Koch brothers is nice. But there are plenty of instances in the not-so-distant past of Democrats lamenting how unrepresentative democracy had become in the post-Citizens United world, where billionaires could pour millions of dollars of their personal wealth into shadowy campaign organizations.

And yet, at first blush, there seems to be little hesitation in the Democratic Party's embrace of Steyer.

Former Vice President Al Gore called him "Mr. Tipping Point" in the climate wars. Democratic senators who attended the fundraiser Steyer held for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raised $400,000, discussed how "exposed the Republicans are for adopting and promoting a basic anti-science position," according to a source who attended and was interviewed by Politico. The executive director of the DSCC, Guy Cecil, praised Steyer on Twitter for hosting the event.

Now, holding a DSCC fundraising event is different from whatever campaign entity Steyer is planning to build this cycle. In the former, donations are capped by federal law, while in the latter, Steyer will be uninhibited from spending however much of his own money he wants. And spending money to combat climate change isn't the same as spending money to elect candidates who will advance your personal business interests.

But according to advocates for campaign finance reform, Democrats are, at the very least, guilty of exhibiting selective outrage.

"It is the way of life in this system," said Fred Wertheimer, president and CEO of Democracy 21, a reform group. "The way money in politics works is each side is going to try and do what the other side does and that the system allows. And that is just the way of life.

"The test here is who is willing to fight and try and fix this system," he added. "No one should be fooled into thinking that billionaires acting to put huge amounts of their own money into the system to obtain their own personal interests in government policy decisions is anything but a disaster ... The most insidious entity in politics is the individual candidate super PAC."

In response to criticisms like these, Democratic campaign operatives usually concede that money in politics is bad. But should one party fight with a hand tied behind its back? Isn't it better to elect lawmakers who support campaign finance reform, even if it takes big-moneyed donors to help them win?

Electing those candidates only works if they decide to push campaign finance reform legislation once they're in office. And there is no indication that any such legislation is currently under consideration. Instead, the emergence of Steyer as a mega-donor suggests the cementing of a new normal, in which each side turns to its ideologically supportive billionaires to help bankroll "issue" campaigns -- or, as good government officials see it, a destructive political arms race.

Said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund: "When politics becomes a fight between wealthy Democrats and wealthy Republicans, everyone else loses."

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