This story was co-published with NBC News.
A billionaire environmentalist is spending big money in California to skewer presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump — the latest volley in a barrage of anti-Trump advertising that has saturated TV airwaves.
The billionaire? Tom Steyer, who has so far contributed $24 million to his personal super PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee. That ranks him among the top contributors to all super PACs so far this election.
NextGen Climate Action Committee says it acts “politically to prevent climate disaster and promote prosperity for every American.”
But the Spanish-language ad sponsored by NextGen Climate Action Committee depicts Trump calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and announcing plans for a “deportation force” — a clear departure from the super PAC’s typical environment-focused messaging.
The ad then cuts to Steyer himself who, in Spanish, encourages Californians to vote.
During the 2014 midterm elections, no person funneled more traceable money into federal elections than Steyer. He spent more than $73 million that year backing Democratic candidates concerned about rising global temperatures — exceeding what individual conservative megadonors spent backing Republicans.
Yet, a majority of the candidates Steyer backed lost their races, and Democrats failed to retain control of the U.S. Senate.
Steyer appears ready to double down on politics in 2016, despite a low return on his previous investment: NextGen Climate Action will invest $25 million in get-out-the-vote efforts, and Steyer himself said he plans to spend more money on this election cycle than he did the last one.
The ad’s sponsor
Technically sponsoring the ad is NextGen California Action Committee, a super PAC operating under the “NextGen” umbrella.
NextGen Climate Action first formed in 2013 as two entities: a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and a super PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee.
The super PAC made a splash in 2014 when it raised about $78 million amid hotly contested U.S. Senate races, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Some of the money — about $17.6 million directly attacked Republicans. That included spending $100,000 to build a “Noah’s Ark” — literally, a giant wooden boat on wheels — that traveled throughout Florida, taunting Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
It also spent some money directly supporting Democrats, such as Iowa politician Bruce Braley, who benefited from about $780,000 in NextGen Climate Action support but still lost to now-U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.
NextGen Climate Action Committee also transferred tens of millions of dollars to other liberal super PACs and politically active nonprofits. They included state-based affiliates of NextGen Climate Action, as well as pro-Democrat groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and Fair Share Action.
NextGen Climate Action has offices in states such as New Hampshire, Iowa and California and has begun organizing on college campuses, too. Before elections this November, NextGen Climate Action plans to send organizers to hundreds of campuses in seven states.
Who’s behind it?
Steyer, mastermind behind the “NextGen” behemoth, once shared the same occupation as several Republican megadonors: hedge fund manager.
But in 2012, Steyer sold his stake in hedge fund Farallon Capital, and he became a full-time political and environmental activist. Since then, Steyer has heavily invested in supporting candidates, political parties and ballot initiatives.
Steyer is also rumored to be considering a 2018 run for governor in California to replace Gov. Jerry Brown, which wouldn’t be surprising considering all 2016 NextGen Climate Action Committee ads prominently feature Steyer as if he were himself a political candidate. Few other super PACs, be them liberal or conservative, feature their leaders or top donors in TV ads they produce.
Steyer’s super PAC funding exploded in 2014. While most of the $78 million he contributed — about $68.7 million — went to his own super PACs, Steyer also gave $5 million to Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
In 2016, Steyer has yet to help fund any of the main super PACs supporting Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, such as Priorities USA Action, or run NextGen Climate Action Committee ads that overtly praise or promote Clinton.
Steyer did, however, donate to Clinton’s presidential campaign and conduct a $2,700-per-person fundraiser for her in May.
During the 2016 election cycle, NextGen Climate Action Committee has so far raised more than $24.6 million.
How much comes from Steyer’s own pocket? More than 97 percent.
After Steyer, no other individual donor has given more than a five-figure contribution.
So far, NextGen Climate Action Committee is advertising only in California, which conducts its presidential primary on Tuesday. To date, it has spent $1.6 million on negative ads against Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz dropped out of the presidential race in early May.
The first TV ad released this election cycle by environmentally-focused NextGen Climate Action Committee, which hit in April, did feature Trump and Cruz respectively calling climate change a “hoax” and “not science.”
But the latest anti-Trump did not mention the environment once, instead knocking Trump’s statements about immigration.
Overall, ads sponsored by NextGen California Action Committee have aired 88 times through May 30, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data compiled by ad monitoring firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
Federal Communications Commission records indicate that NextGen Climate Action ads will air until June 6 in California markets, mostly on Spanish-language TV stations.
Why it matters
Steyer’s spending to date outpaces that of Republican megadonors, such as hedge fund manager Paul Singer and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Although massive political spending via super PACs is often associated with Republicans, Steyer proves that Democrats indulge in the post-Citizens United world of elections, too.
Still, Steyer contends that he’s different than conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch, and that he supports repealing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.
For one, Steyer pours his money into super PACs, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash to advocate for and against politicians — but must reveal their donors.
The Kochs primarily fund nonprofit organizations that may to some extent also promote or attack political candidates — but may keep their donors secret.
The Kochs, who themselves have shown little enthusiasm for Trump, are so far focusing their network’s resources on U.S. Senate races. Charles Koch, in particular, has been adamant that the brothers’ political spending springs from a desire to make the United States a wealthier nation with more economic opportunity for all.
“The Koch brothers say they’re acting out of conviction,” Steyer told PBS. “But whatever they’re doing also definitely benefits their bottom line. You can’t say that about us.”
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