Tom Steyer says he'll use $1M to engage Virginia Millennials

FILE - In this March 13, 2019, photo, billionaire investor and Democratic activist Tom Steyer speaks during a "Need to Impeach" town hall event in Agawam, Mass. Steyer announced Monday, June 24 that he will put $1 million toward registering millennial voters in Virginia. Steyer's liberal advocacy group, NextGen America, will engage young voters in Republican-held districts in the hopes of flipping the Republican-led General Assembly to the Democrats in November.

NextGen America, the liberal advocacy group Steyer founded in 2013, will target 11 mostly Republican-held districts with digital ads and other forms of outreach to voters between the ages of 18 and 35, with messages centered on gun safety, reproductive rights and climate change, the group announced Monday.

Virginia is one of four states with legislative races in 2017 but the only one where control of the state legislature is at stake. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot in November, and the GOP holds a three-seat edge in the House (51 to 48) and a bare majority in the Senate (20 to 19), with one vacant seat in each chamber.

"This is a specific focus on the two chambers of the legislature, and each one of them can turn blue this year," Steyer said, referring to razor-thin majorities Republicans hold after Democrats made sweeping gains in 2017. "Obviously, that's something that would be incredibly important."

Steyer, a former hedge-fund owner turned environmentalist who has led calls for President Donald Trump's impeachment, said NextGen America also will participate in a "Give Green" campaign that will solicit donations nationwide for select Democratic candidates in Virginia.

NextGen is one of several groups that are organizing in Virginia this year as a way to build momentum for the 2020 presidential election.

During the past few months, Giffords, the gun-safety organization launched by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), endorsed Democrats in two key Northern Virginia districts, and the Future Now Fund organization launched a $400,000 competition meant to spur nine of its chosen Democratic candidates to interact more with voters at their doorsteps.

Democrats have been hoping that a wave of successes in recent Virginia elections will move them into control of the legislature for the first time since 1995. The party in charge in 2021 will oversee the next statewide redistricting effort, following next year's census - potentially cementing an advantage in future elections.

On the Republican side, the Colonial Leadership Trust political action committee formed in 2017 by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has been the most active, steering $385,000 to more than a dozen candidates over the past 17 months, according to the nonprofit organization Virginia Public Access Project.

"There's going to be tons of money out there," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Large donors "are all thinking this is the year where they can pick up the House and the Senate, and they're really going to make an effort at it," he said.

Steyer has been involved in Virginia since his group rallied in 2013 to defeat Ken Cuccinelli's Republican bid for governor over his conservative views on climate science and reproductive rights. At the time, Cuccinelli was the attorney general of Virginia.

Over the past six years, NextGen America has spent $13 million on Democratic campaigns in the state, a spokeswoman said.

The new campaign aims to engage younger voters in six House of Delegate districts and five Senate districts, mainly in neighborhoods near college campuses in those areas.

Among the Republicans being targeted are: Cox, who is seeking a 15th term against Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman and independent Linnard K. Harris Sr.; Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, who will again compete against Democrat Shelly Simonds after their tied race last year was decided by a random drawing from a bowl; and former Stafford County supervisor Paul Milde, who ousted Del. Robert Thomas Jr., R-Stafford, in this month's Republican primary election and will face Democrat Joshua Cole in November.

NextGen America will also work to defend several Democratic seats, including those held by Dels. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, who will face Republican Garrison Coward in the fall, and Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, in his race against Republican Forrest Hite, the group said.

Steyer, who contributed nearly $214 million toward last year's congressional elections, said he has no plans to get involved in any other state elections, largely because he does not want his group to be seen as parachuting in to help Democrats in places where it previously had no real presence.

NextGen America has 19 full-time staffers and 1,500 volunteers in Virginia, he said.

"We understand that state legislatures are important," Steyer said. "We also understand that for us to win, and for Democrats to expand, we really can't come and go when it suits us. We have to actually be part of the community."

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