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Billionaire Environmentalist Targets 7 Statewide Races

Businessman Tom Steyer listens during a meeting to announce the launch of a group called Virginians for Clean Government in September 2013.
Steve Helber
Businessman Tom Steyer listens during a meeting to announce the launch of a group called Virginians for Clean Government in September 2013.

San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer has already pledged at least $50 million to his superPAC, NextGen Climate, and now the superPAC's leaders are laying out a hardball strategy for the fall campaign.

The goal: tag seven Republican candidates as "science deniers" who are on the wrong side of the increasingly urgent climate change issue.

Chris Lehane, Steyer's political adviser, says the superPAC will target four Senate candidates — Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado; state Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa; Terry Lynn Land in Michigan; and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who's running in New Hampshire — and three governors seeking re-election — Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania.

The seven targeted Senate and gubernatorial races rate among the most competitive in the nation in 2014.

Lehane says NextGen Climate will run ads and voter contact aimed at base Democratic voters, including those unlikely to vote in the midterm elections. He gave details to reporters in a briefing Wednesday at Washington's Willard Hotel — a sharply focused picture of how a well-funded outside money group can play in the midterms.

Among the bullet points:

  • Define climate change as a wedge issue. Comparing it to marriage equality, civil rights and women's suffrage, Lehane told reporters: "Change occurred once those issues were defined in moral terms as right versus wrong, and then used ... as a wedge."
  • Define the opposition. "The Republican troglodyte brand, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-science" is how Lehane put it.
  • Localize it. NextGen materials cite rising sea levels and price hikes on flood insurance in Florida, and high levels of asthma among Hispanic families in Colorado.
  • Talk money. Lehane said the group will raise decisions made by the seven Republicans "that are demonstrably not in the best interest of their state, but unquestionably in the specific interest of a fossil fuel donor."
  • Of course, when money comes up, Steyer's own spending comes into question. He's the biggest known liberal funder this election cycle, and Lehane is quick to say his boss objects to the federal court decisions that made superPACs possible. He says Steyer is "spending a drop in the big-oil bucket compared to what the fossil fuel industry is spending, in particular the Koch brothers."

    David and Charles Koch are architects and major funders of a conservative network, including Americans for Prosperity, one of the top-spending groups in the 2012 presidential race.

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has harshly criticized the Kochs, recently calling them "un-American." In response, Republicans began attacking Steyer this spring. The National Republican Senatorial Committee calls him an "environmental radical" who gives marching orders to Reid and other Senate Democrats.

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    Peter Overby
    Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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