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Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund executive-turned liberal political activist, has committed to spending $30 million in 10 states to register and energize progressive, millennial voters — $2.5 million of which will fund efforts in Wisconsin.

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Tom Steyer believes the millennials are our future. So he's spending tens of millions of dollars to organize them, and let them lead the way. 

Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund executive turned liberal political activist, has committed to spending $30 million in 10 states to register and energize progressive, millennial voters — $2.5 million of which will fund efforts in Wisconsin, home of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"We are focused on registering, engaging and empowering the under-represented parts of society, which very much includes millennials," Steyer said in an interview. "Traditionally, people have felt organizing millennials is too expensive, too time-consuming. We feel it is the essence of democracy to make sure the parts of society that aren’t participating enough participate."

Steyer's NextGen America group is already active on 14 college campuses throughout Wisconsin, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Stout, Marquette University, Cardinal Stritch University and Carroll University. By the Nov. 6 general election, the group plans to have 53 paid staff working on 35 campuses.

At least four of those campuses will be community colleges, which generally don't see the kind of political engagement efforts that larger universities do, a spokesman for the group said. NextGen staff will also target millennials who aren't in school, Steyer said 

"We’re able to fill some of these gaps that other (organizing) groups aren’t in," said George Olufosoye, the group's Wisconsin youth organizing director.

In Wisconsin, the group will focus its efforts on supporting Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Democratic challengers to Walker and Ryan.

Steyer, who can been seen frequently in a series of television ads calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, said he believes Walker, Ryan and Trump are "deeply misguided and doing absolutely immoral things." 

He and Walker agree on one thing: they see Wisconsin as a purple state, despite the fact that its voters supported Trump in 2016 and its legislative and executive branches have been under Republican control for seven years. 

But despite that, Steyer said, the state has become a "hotbed of fringe, right-wing politics."

"I spent 30 years in the private sector. I spend a ton of time thinking about economic issues," Steyer said. "I believe these guys are very deliberately leading us right off an economic cliff. I believe that their policies, in addition to being cruel, are incredibly stupid."

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said outside money is "pouring in" to Wisconsin to "distort the truth and mislead voters."

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"Liberal special interests can spend all the money they want, but they can't change the facts — unemployment is at near record low, more people are working than ever before, and our schools are funded at historic levels. Scott Walker has Wisconsin working," Zimmerman said in a statement.

While Steyer's impeachment campaign relies on a $20 million TV and digital ad campaign, he said his goal in NextGen's youth program is to organize at a grassroots level. 

Steyer believes a direct conversation is more likely to stick with a potential young voter than a 15- or 30-second ad they might forget in a few days. He cites Virginia's elections last fall, in which young voters turned out at historic levels and overwhelmingly supported Democrats, as proof that NextGen's approach can work.

"We believe if we organize young folks, we will be able to elect leaders that stand for progressive values," Olufosoye said. "I try to think about it as one fish — the big fish is Trump or Walker. We’re a whole bunch of little fish, and cumulatively we become bigger than the big fish."

NextGen will fund similar programs in California, Nevada, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.