Elections

Billionaire wants to turn NC congressional seats blue: 'A fight for the soul of America'

California billionaire Tom Steyer announced Tuesday that he plans to invest $1 million into the effort to flip North Carolina's 9th and 13th congressional districts by mobilizing young voters.
California billionaire Tom Steyer announced Tuesday that he plans to invest $1 million into the effort to flip North Carolina's 9th and 13th congressional districts by mobilizing young voters. AP file

California billionaire Tom Steyer announced Tuesday that he plans to invest $1 million into the effort to flip North Carolina's 9th and 13th congressional districts by mobilizing young voters.

The money is on top of $30 million he's spending on NextGen Rising, a campaign to energize millennial voters in more than two dozen key districts in 10 states.

Steyer told the Observer that in North Carolina he'll put 11 full-time and 25 part-time staffers on 12 college campuses in the two districts. In addition, he wants to target 100,000 young voters through a mail and digital campaign.

The districts are now represented by Republicans Robert Pittenger of Charlotte in the 9th and Ted Budd of Davie County in the 13th. Each has a well-funded Democratic opponent.

"Looking at North Carolina, we felt that these two congressional seats were ones where it was possible to turn them from red to blue," Steyer said in an interview.

The 9th District runs from southeast Charlotte to Fayetteville. The 13th extends from Mooresville to Greensboro.

Steyer, 60, is a former hedge fund manager and an environmental activist. He's already one of the biggest spenders on the 2018 election. According to the Washington Post, he's invested more than $15.7 million in Democratic-leaning super PACs. That's more than all but one other donor.

Steyer also leads an effort to impeach President Donald Trump and has appeared in commercials urging impeachment. He called the 2018 elections "a fight for the soul of America."

"This is the critical year for America," he said. "This is a fight for the soul of America. . . . I believe this country is on a disastrous path. If we can’t turn that around I believe they (Republicans) will lead us to ruin."

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, said he's not worried.

"I really don’t think his record on moving the population has been very successful," Woodhouse said. "Running against the hard left will be to our advantage in these districts. At the end of the day voters will make their decisions based on tax policies and other policies that affect their lives."

Energizing young voters may not be easy, particularly in an off-year election.

Last fall voters under 25 made up just 2 percent of those who took part in Charlotte's city primaries, according to the Mecklenburg County elections board. Those under 40 comprised less than 18 percent.

Statewide, turnout rates for young voters typically lag.

For example, Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer found that just 18 percent of voters 18-25 voted in 2014, the last off-year election compared with an overall turnout of 44 percent.

In trying to mobilize young voters, Bitzer said, Steyer is starting from a baseline "of nearly zero."

"So any effort to get younger voters to show up may make a difference,” he said.

How much of a difference?

Bitzer calculates that 29 percent of registered voters in the 9th District are millennials or part of Generation Z, that is, 37 or younger.

In the 13th District, which extends from Mooresville to Greensboro, the figure is 33 percent.

Last year in Virginia, Steyer spent $2 million to mobilize millennial voters on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ralph Northam. After the votes were counted in November, The Washington Post reported that young voters "came out in historic numbers and overwhelmingly cast their ballots" for Northam.

Steyer said the N.C. effort would be "exactly what we did in Virginia.”

Charlotte City Council member Larken Egleston, 35, said he believes enthusiasm already is building among younger voters. Activism has been sparked by the Women's March as well as by the national protests that followed February's mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

"The March for Our Lives was a sign that younger folks are more focused," said Egleston.

Steyer agrees. He believes young voters just need to be motivated and said he plans to personally cajole such voters in North Carolina. That's what he did last week at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University.

"The fact of the matter is they're not organized," he said of young voters. "And they feel alienated from the political system and the parties."

Charlotte's Amy Chiou, who organizes young voters, said Steyer's effort could help other Democratic candidates.

"Increased turnout, millennials or otherwise, will have more of an impact in the N.C. Supreme Court race and the state House and Senate races," she said. "Any additional elections resources will just make the blue wave that much more possible."

Reps Robert Pittenger and Richard Hudson tout tax cuts at Charlotte Pipe.

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill
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