Tom Steyer, the Democrats' financial answer to the Koch brothers, has set his sights on specific Senate and gubernatorial races to spend the $100 million he's earmarked for the midterm elections.
His super PAC, NextGen Climate Action , aims to promote candidates who support action to mitigate the effects of climate change. It was active in last year's elections for Virginia governor and a vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts.
The group has now targeted the competitive Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire, and the Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine gubernatorial contests. It will back the Democratic candidate in each case. The list of targeted races could grow as election season wears on, NextGen Chief Strategist Chris Lehane told reporters at a briefing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “We’re always going to keep our eyes open for other opportunities,” he said.
The goal is “to impact politics as it relates to climate,” Lehane said, and to work to “accelerate political change” in that arena.
Steyer has committed $50 million to the effort and is hoping to raise another $50 million from other donors. Lehane stressed that $50 million was not a “ceiling” for the billionaire and that Steyer might choose to put in more money.
In an era of massive political spending by independent groups, NextGen aims to offer Democrats access to vast stores of outside money as Republican enjoy — if they agree to make climate part of the campaign.
“This is the year, in our view, when we’re able to demonstrate that you can use climate — if you do it well, if do it in a smart way — as a wedge issue to win in political races,” Lehane said.
NextGen’s effort is as much about winning elections this year as it is about laying the groundwork to make the climate a major subject of discussion in elections to come.
The group will focus on showing that the climate is an issue that can help turn out base voters — critical for Democrats who suffer from falloff voters in midterm cycles — and that it can help beat back a Republican candidate by branding them as “anti-science.”
It's laying the groundwork for involvement in the 2016 presidential race, focusing on states that not only have competitive races in 2014, but will be important in either the presidential primaries or the general election in 2016.
Part of that will be “showing that climate change can be used as a wedge issue” successfully in each of those states, Lehane said, and laying the groundwork for a discussion of climate issues as they relate to local problems in those states.
NextGen will seek to cast climate as a moral issue, where there are clear sides of right and wrong. The message will be specifically tailored to each state and area.
“We’re not necessarily going to be talking about polar bears and butterflies,” Lehane said. “We’re going to be talking about how this issue of climate impacts people in their backyards, in their states, in their communities.”
For instance, he suggested, they might make a map of all the fracking towers in Colorado.
They will also focus on the donors giving to “anti-science” candidates, and point out instances where a candidate’s position is “demonstrably not in the best interest of their state, but unquestionably in the specific interest of a major fossil fuel donor.”
Steyer has emerged to some extent as the Democrats' answer to the Charles and David Koch, the billionaires who have lent their extensive wealth to promote conservative candidates and causes. Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the Koch brothers, has already poured millions of dollars into Senate races as Republicans work to pick up the six seats need to win back the chamber.
“All we are trying to do, all that Tom is trying to do, is really to try to balance and level the playing field,” Lehane said. He acknowledged that NextGen would be unable to match the Kochs dollar-for-dollar but likened their efforts to David taking on Goliath.
Republicans have already sought to cast Steyer in the role of boogeyman, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has done with the Kochs. In the Michigan Senate race, GOP candidate Terri Lynn Land recently ran online ads linking her opponent, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters' opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline to Steyer, accusing Peters of “working for billionaires, not Michigan.”
Lehane says NextGen relishes that comparison.
“Tom his spending his money in the public interest," he said, as "the other side is spending its money on its own economic self interest."
“We want to have this fight. Because this is a fight between right and wrong,” Lehane said. “We’re on the right side.”