WASHINGTON – Setting his sights on Republicans who reject climate change, an environmentalist billionaire is unveiling plans to spend $100 million this year in seven competitive Senate and gubernatorial races, as his super PAC works to counteract a flood of conservative spending by the Koch brothers.
NextGen Climate Action said it plans to spend at least $50 million contributed by founder Tom Steyer, a retired hedge fund manager and longtime Democratic donor, and another $50 million the group is seeking to raise from likeminded donors. The money will be used to back Democrats and attack Republicans running for Senate in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan, and for governor in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine.
"Our goal is very clear: to impact the politics as it relates to climate in a time period that will result in policies that allow our country and the world to avoid the perils of climate change," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist advising the super PAC. "In a sense, it's a race against time."
With Democrats on the defensive this year in races across the country, Steyer is pursuing a two-pronged goal: helping Democrats keep the Senate and capture governor's mansions, and elevating climate change as a make-or-break issue for voters. That effort comes despite the fact that Democrats are fighting most of their toughest races this year in conservative, oil-dependent states where even Democrats are seeking to fashion themselves as friendly to energy industry.
The playbook, Lehane and other NextGen officials said Wednesday, is to adopt strategies that have been effective in other cultural fights over tobacco, recycling and women's suffrage: persuade voters that climate change is a matter of right versus wrong, then use the issue to drive a "wedge" between voters and Republicans who align themselves with what environmentalists argue is the wrong side of history.
To that end, NextGen will order up television ads that drill down on how climate change is already upsetting the environment in each state, hoping to transform climate change from a hypothetical issue to a pocketbook issue. Voters in those states can expect a steady dose of hard-hitting ads mocking GOP candidates for questioning the science that says climate change is real.
In Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is fighting for another term, NextGen said it plans to remind voters how climate change will raise their premiums for flood insurance and affect the state's drinking water. They also plan to attack Scott for initially refusing to join a multi-state lawsuit against BP after the 2010 oil spill.
Republican Scott Brown, who is running for the Senate in New Hampshire, will likely get hit with ads deriding a recent op-ed he penned backing the Keystone XL pipeline that "spouted regular Republican talking points that are absolute misinformation," said Sky Gallegos, NextGen's political director.
Steyer's infusion of cash comes as Democrats are seeking to restore balance to political spending following the Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited, largely untraceable money to flow into elections. Wary of being outspent, Democrats are looking to counter a deluge from outside groups like the Karl Rove-endorsed Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch with plans to spend more than $125 million this year.
"Two words: Koch brothers," said Lehane, adding that Steyer disagrees with the high court's ruling. "We're spending a drop in the big-oil bucket compare to what the fossil fuel industry is spending. All Tom is trying to do is really to level the playing field."
Freedom Partners, an outside group whose board of directors is stacked with top Koch executives, accused Steyer of trying to burden Americans with new energy regulations to protect personal investments in green energy projects. "Surely the media will call him out on the hypocrisy of his claims," said spokesman James Davis.
NextGen spokeswoman Heather Wong said Steyer's investments in green energy are held by charitable groups and trusts that donate their earnings to nonprofits. "Steyer does not personally benefit financially from any of these investments," she said in response to Freedom Partners.
The map of races where NextGen plans to invest shows the group is avoiding states where aggressive policies to curb climate change are unpopular -- such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska. Rather, NextGen is trying to raise the specter of climate change in states where voters tend to support environmental steps but may not cast their votes based on the issue.
The effort could have implications for elections beyond 2014. Nearly all the states where NextGen is spending play are important presidential states, and the group said that rather than swooping into states briefly just before an election, NextGen intends to launch an ongoing, long-term dialogue with voters about climate.
In taking on the Koch brothers, Steyer is also elevating his role as one of the most prominent billionaire donors on the left. A major fundraiser and donor for Obama's presidential campaigns, Steyer has hosted fundraisers at his San Francisco home featuring Obama, and will host Vice President Joe Biden next week.
The $50 million that Steyer has pledged is the floor, not the ceiling, Lehane said. The super PAC is evaluating other races and could expand its map later this year.
"Tom has not been shy about opening up his pocketbook," Lehane said. "This is someone who is worth, depending on whose version you believe, somewhere around $2 billion."