SEATTLE — The effort by a California billionaire named Thomas F. Steyer to bolster global climate change measures in Washington has turned the battle over the state Senate into one of the most expensive legislative elections in state history.
Money has poured in to the handful of legislative races that Steyer’s political action committee identified as central to shifting the Senate’s leadership from a Republican-led coalition to a Democratic majority that would support the ambitious climate goals set by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.
About $4.2 million has been spent so far by independent groups on the 10 most competitive state legislative races, up from $3.2 million for the top 10 in 2012 and $1.8 million in 2010, according to state figures. In terms of spending by outside independent groups, this is almost certainly the most expensive legislative election season in state history, the records show.
The Democrats need a net gain of two seats to gain a Senate majority, and Steyer’s political action committee, Nextgen Climate Action, has contributed $1.25 million to that goal.
A nearly equal amount has come from Republican and business groups, including $440,000 this month from the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Republicans assert the heightened focus on climate and the environment could benefit them by sending a message to voters that Democrats are overly focused on the planet and not enough on pocketbook issues.
Addressing the global climate is profoundly complex with overlapping issues of science and international relations, and few matters that can addressed with minor tweaks in appropriations or regulations.
“It’s an issue that the campaigns probably wouldn’t be addressing without for this outside money coming in,” said Travis N. Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University.
Democrats control all statewide elected offices in Washington, and hold a majority in the House of Representatives. But they have been in a pique for two years over the Senate, which was nominally in their control after the 2012 election until two Democrats in their 26-23 majority joined with the Republicans. The resulting bipartisan majority coalition of self-described fiscal conservatives has blocked many of Inslee’s proposals and worked to rein in expensive state programs.
Even without Steyer and his money, made through running a hedge fund, 2014 would probably have been something of a grudge match.
With the money, though, climate has been put on the table, if not quite offered as the main course.