Can Climate Change Move Votes? How Group Tries to Make Pitch Stick

Environmentalist Tom Steyer has spent upwards of $58 million in this year's elections.

The message has been sounding for months across the country, blaring on Florida airwaves, landing in voter mailboxes and even barreling through the roads of New Hampshire in the bed of a pick-up truck.

The focus of the multi-million dollar election blitz isn’t jobs, the threat of ISIS or the Ebola crisis dominating the news. It’s the environment.

Environmental groups are spending big on the midterm elections, with an eye on pushing climate and other issues to voters casting their ballots this year and elevating the issue ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Together we’re sending an unmistakable message to Washington,” Tom Steyer, a billionaire activist bankrolling much of the campaign, said in a YouTube video to supporters. “Climate change is not just an important issue, it’s the issue. And we need leaders who will take it seriously.”

Steyer, a former San Francisco hedge fund manager, seeded his new Next Gen Climate Action political committee with $58 million, a figure that may make him one of this cycle's biggest individual spenders. His unprecedented effort is taking its climate campaign to races that could determine the control of the U.S. Senate, some of the nation’s most competitive gubernatorial elections and even state legislative seats up for grabs in the Pacific Northwest.

Even with the cash infusion, elevating the environment into one that drives votes is a challenge. The issue trails more traditional stump issues like the economy, health care and immigration in surveys asking voters which issues are “very important” to their vote for Congress.

“The hurdle is that it’s never seemed imminent,” said Barbara Baudot, an environmental professor who chairs the politics department at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. “I think the issue is, 'Well this is 50 years off and we’re really concerned about these issues that are going to be on our dinner plate right now.'”

That’s changing, Baudot said, as extreme weather events such as superstorm Sandy and the threat a changing climate presents to states’ thriving natural tourism industries raise public awareness. In September, an estimated 100,000 people turned out for a climate march in New York City. 

In the meantime, the climate crusaders are also deploying more tested campaign messages for motivating voters. NextGen’s ads blast targeted Republicans, including New Hampshire Senate nominee Scott Brown and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for ties to the oil industry and billionaire businessmen David and Charles Koch, who have poured their own fortunes into political organizations backing conservative candidates and causes. 

In New Hampshire, where Brown, a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts, is seeking to unseat Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, the campaign on the airwaves is “related to the environment, but it’s not saying necessarily that his policies are bad for the environment,” according to political science professor Christopher Galdieri. The broader focus overall, he said, is "more that the policies put him on the side of someone other than New Hampshire."

“I don’t think that necessarily a straight-up environmental pitch would necessarily carry as much weight as saying look, this candidate isn’t on your side because he’s too cozy with the oil companies," he said. 

But NextGen says its goal is to make that environmental pitch stick this year and into the future, especially in states like New Hampshire that have "an outsized role in the national political dialogue," according to state director Pete Kavanaugh. Hundreds of volunteers and staff have spent months targeting college campuses, where the group says 10,000 students have signed pledges committing to vote on climate issues, and knocking on more than 275,000 doors heading into the final weekend of the campaign. They expect to visit 100,000 more homes by Tuesday.  

Kavanaugh, who was the Obama campaign's state director there in 2011 and 2012, said he's been surprised to see how much the issue has resonated with voters as it has "become a much bigger part of the narrative in 2014." Polls showing the topic lagging, he said, fail to reflect the ways climate policy plays into other top issues, like the economy, particularly in states with large natural tourism industries, and public health. 

“I think people are starting to connect this all into the umbrella of climate change," he said. “This is no longer an issue that is 50 years out."

Campaigns on the receiving end of the attacks, meanwhile, say those more traditional issues, such as the economy, are going to be deciding factors this year. Scott, who has been bashed as a “climate change denier” by NextGen in Florida, has been quoted dismissing the attacks as coming from a" radical, left wing billionaire from the West Coast." In New Hampshire, Republicans have countered with ads highlighting reports that energy prices are going to rise this winter. Brown emphasizes he is for an "all of the above" approach on energy. 

“While I understand that many of the climate groups are discussing these sorts of issues on the trail, what’s really at the forefront of peoples’ minds are energy costs they’re facing on their daily lives,” said Lauren Zelt, spokesperson for the Republican Party in New Hampshire.

Major Spending Still a Sliver of Overall Activity 

The push by NextGen could boost total spending by a quintet of environmental groups to a record $85 million, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post. One political media executive predicted this fall that the 2014 could be “the biggest cycle for energy/environment-related advertising, ever.”

“I think we have seen more mentions of environmental issues this year, driven largely by NextGen’s involvement,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which is tracking campaign ads.

Still, it's a small portion of the overall spending in this year's Senate, House and gubernatorial elections, which have already seen more than $1 billion in ads, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

NextGen's New Hampshire expenditures are "north of" $4 million, including about $1 million on ads, Kavanaugh said. Total spending by outside groups there has exceeded $29 million, according to Jobs and the economy and Obamacare have been the most popular topics on the airwaves for Democratic and Republican groups respectively, the Wesleyan Media Project analysis found.

In Florida, NextGen has reportedly poured $12 million into helping former Gov. Charlie Crist oust Scott. That race, expected to be the nation's most expensive gubernatorial campaign, has attracted more than $100 million in ads alone, The Associated Press reported. 

Polls heading into Election Day show many of the races where Next Gen is active stil neck-and-neck . But win or lose, the effort likely won’t end Nov. 4. 

"We’ve said from day one in New Hampshrie that we were going to be here long-term," Kavanaugh said.  "...The work we’re doing on the ground allows us to build that foundation." 

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