Outside group seeks to make climate change a major issue in U.S. Senate race in N.H.
FILE -- In this Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 file photo, businessman Tom Steyer speaks during a meeting to announce the launch of a group called Virginians for Clean Government at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist, says he will launch a campaign next year urging California lawmakers to approve taxes on companies that extract oil in the state. The major Democratic donor said Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 that he thinks it is ridiculous that California is the only oil-producing state that does not levy such a fee, which could generate billions of dollars a year. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A super PAC backed by liberal billionaire Tom Steyer plans to pour a significant amount of money into the New Hampshire Senate race with the goal of bringing climate change to the forefront of voters’ minds in this election cycle and beyond.
“This is about building a long-term narrative about climate change and about these issues, and New Hampshire is a place that we believe can really help drive that,” said Pete Kavanaugh, a veteran of President Obama’s campaign who is leading the group’s efforts here.
New Hampshire is one of seven states that will be ground zero for super PAC NextGen Climate’s fight this fall, alongside the Senate races in Iowa, Michigan and Colorado and gubernatorial contests in Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania. In each of these races, the group says there is a stark contrast between Republican and Democratic candidates when it comes to climate change. In New Hampshire, the effort will focus on building a sizable grassroots organizing campaign aimed at targeting voter turnout among college students, voters under 30 and independent voters. Kavanaugh said the ground game will be “cutting edge,” using many of the voter targeting and analytic strategies developed during Obama’s two campaigns.
Kavanaugh said he does not have a specific budget or staff size at this time, but that the effort will be significant. Steyer has pledged to spend at least $50 million of his own money in races this year and the super PAC is aiming to raise another $50 million.
In addition to New Hampshire’s status as an influential state in national politics, Kavanaugh said NextGen is also focusing on New Hampshire because of the state’s reliance on tourism.
Although former senator Scott Brown has to beat three Republican primary challengers before running directly against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a press release from NextGen specifically focused on Brown’s record as a reason for choosing New Hampshire as a crucial state in this effort.
Tying Brown to the oil industry – and billionaire oil executives Charles and David Koch – is at the center of the group’s strategy, which is similar to the message the New Hampshire Democratic Party and the Shaheen campaign have been peddling since Brown entered the race.
Brown has said he believes humans are contributing to climate change, but NextGen plans to focus on his ties to the oil industry and what they see as his inaction on stopping climate change. Brown took in $346,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry in 2012, less than just two other senators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As a U.S. senator representing Massachusetts, Brown voted for more than $24 million in subsidies for the oil industry. Recent allegations that Brown helped kill an energy efficiency bill co-sponsored by Shaheen also play well into this new campaign.
“Scott Brown has a strong record supporting a clean environment, but he believes we need to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt New Hampshire’s economy,” Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton said.
“Sen. Shaheen has a very different view as she supports a new national energy tax that would cost 10,000 New Hampshire jobs, increase gas prices by 20 cents per gallon and increase electricity rates up to 18 percent.”
Guyton was referring to a tax on carbon that Shaheen supported in 2013. The amendment was proposed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.
Shaheen’s work on the energy efficiency bill is the most recent example of her commitment to act against climate change, Kavanaugh said. If passed, the legislation would have created 190,000 American jobs by 2030 and cut pollution by the equivalent of taking 22 million cars off the road.
In March, Shaheen spoke on the Senate floor during an all-night talkathon by Democrats urging action on climate change, which she said could have a negative impact on New Hampshire’s coastal communities, fall foliage, maple sugar production, ski season and other industries that contribute to New Hampshire’s tourism industry.
“She’s always taken very pro-environment and very progressive stance on the climate change issues,” Kavanaugh said.
Steyer’s involvement in this new push, coupled with many Republicans’ anti-climate change message, is likely to be a point of political contention. In many ways, Steyer is to Republicans what the Koch brothers are to Democrats: outside billionaires seeking to push their agenda onto New Hampshire voters.
Democrats have worked hard to vilify the Koch brothers here and nationally. The brothers have spent decades advocating for deregulation of the oil industry and have major influence in Republican circles through Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit that plans to spend $125 million in the 2014 election. Already in New Hampshire, the group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads against Shaheen.
But Republicans now have fodder to call Shaheen a hypocrite. The same weekend that Shaheen called on Brown to sign the “People’s Pledge,” which aimed to keep third-party money out of the race, she was in California for a fundraiser at Steyer’s home.
“After railing against outside money, Sen. Shaheen is hypocritically embracing billionaire Tom Steyer’s special interest group,” Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said in a statement.
Shaheen’s campaign said she is still willing to sign the People’s Pledge if Brown agrees to it. Notably, the pledge pertains only to television and radio ads, meaning it wouldn’t prevent a group such as NextGen from spending money here on a ground game.
Steyer said he won’t benefit financially from action on climate change. All of his green energy investments are held by charitable foundations, said Suzanne Henkels, deputy press secretary for NextGen. Steyer also recently directed all of his funds to be divested from oil and tar sands companies, and said he is creating a clean-energy-only portfolio.
Historically, climate change is very low on voters’ lists of priorities come Election Day. Interest in issues such as climate change, where voters see less of an impact on their daily lives, typically move more to the forefront when the economy is good, said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
But politically, climate change is an issue that could help Democrats rally the base, which is less enthusiastic than Democrats would like going into the midterm elections, Smith said.
The organizers behind NextGen Climate action are hoping their efforts will do even more to help make climate change a leading issue. But as long as the issue is tied to politics, and a lightning rod figure like Steyer is backing the effort, bringing Republicans across the line isn’t likely, Smith said.
“When you change things from a science concern to a political issue, then people tend to want to believe what their side says,” Smith said.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)