WASHINGTON — Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmental activist from California, wants to blast the issue of climate change to the front lines of American politics. His “super PAC,” NextGen Climate, will spend about $100 million this year to influence several Senate and governor’s races in which climate change could play a major role.
But the goal, Mr. Steyer’s strategists say, is to pave the way for climate change to become a major issue in the next presidential campaign, by elevating it in the minds of voters in states that will play crucial roles in nominating and electing the next president.
Mr. Steyer’s organization will pour money into media campaigns to influence Senate races in Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Michigan, and governors’ races in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine. They will back candidates who openly embrace climate change policies in an effort to help them defeat those who question or deny the established science of climate change.
Mr. Steyer hopes those tactics will create a political landscape in which candidates fear that they will be politically punished for questioning that science. To coordinate the effort, Mr. Steyer has hired Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic strategist.
“We want 2014 to be a pivot year for climate — the year we can demonstrate that you can use climate change as a wedge issue to win in political races,” Mr. Lehane said Wednesday at a briefing with reporters.
Mr. Lehane declined to name an exact figure, but he said that Mr. Steyer had already pledged to spend $50 million of his own fortune on the effort, while NextGen Climate has committed to raising $50 million more.
This year’s strategy expands on successful efforts by Mr. Steyer to elevate climate change issues in three 2013 races. He and NextGen spent over $11 million to influence the Virginia governor’s race, with the intent of defeating Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican who questions the science of climate change.
Terry McAuliffe, the winning Democratic candidate, was not known as a major champion of climate policy, but he campaigned against Mr. Cuccinelli as out-of-touch and a turnoff for potential businesses seeking to invest in Virginia.
Climate policies have traditionally been a tough campaign issue for candidates. A mounting stack of scientific evidence has concluded that human activities — particularly burning coal and oil for electricity and transportation — are trapping heat in the atmosphere and leading to dangerous food and water shortages, increasing droughts and deluges, and potentially devastating sea-level rises. But Many American voters remain unconvinced that the science is real.
Since 2010, Republican campaigns have attacked Democrats who support climate policies to cut carbon pollution as backing a “war on coal” and “job-killing regulations.”
That kind of language is likely to escalate after June 2, when President Obama is expected to announce a climate change regulation intended to slash pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialist brothers, have put millions of dollars into advocacy groups and super PACs like Americans for Prosperity, which have campaigned aggressively against lawmakers who support climate change policy.
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“The left knows that the global warming agenda is a loser for them with the American people,” Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said in an interview. Mr. Phillips said that none of the four most vulnerable Democratic senators — Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — had embraced climate change policy. All four support construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Mr. Steyer opposes.
“Senators up for re-election have their sneakers on and are running from this,” Mr. Phillips said. “They know the issue doesn’t matter with most Americans.”
But one expert said Mr. Steyer’s tactic may work.
“Independent voters, with regard to the issue of climate change, track much more closely with Democrats than Republicans,” said Edward Maibach, the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “Painting candidates as climate deniers stands a good chance of working in districts where the vote turns on independents.”
Mr. Steyer’s group hopes to be helped by the National Climate Assessment, a new scientific report that details the ways climate change is already causing economic harm across the United States.
In the Senate race in Michigan, Mr. Steyer’s group will back Representative Gary Peters, a Democrat who says he will make a point of highlighting how climate change is lowering water levels and leading to environmental problems in the Great Lakes, while also threatening Michigan’s agriculture.
“It’s important to frame the issue in terms of potential threats to our state,” Mr. Peters said.
In Florida, NextGen will spend to defeat Gov. Rick Scott, who has openly questioned the science of climate change. Charlie Crist, a Democratic challenger and former Republican, has cited skepticism of climate change as one of the reasons he left the party.
Florida voters will play a crucial role in the 2016 election. The state is home to two possible Republican presidential contenders — Senator Marco Rubio, who has questioned the science of climate change, and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has evaded specific questions on the issue.
In Iowa, NextGen will back Representative Bruce Braley, a Democratic candidate for the Senate who voted for a House climate change bill in 2009. The group will attack Mr. Braley’s potential Republican opponents, State Senator Joni Earnst or Mark Jacobs, a former electric energy company executive, by criticizing claims they have made questioning climate science.
In Maine’s three-way governor’s race, Mr. Steyer’s group hopes to unseat the Republican incumbent, Paul R. LePage, who has said that climate change could bring economic opportunity to his state, as melting ice in the Northeast Passage opened up shipping routes, and warmer winters could attract tourists to Maine year-round.
In Colorado, the group will back Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat who has vocally supported climate and clean energy policies, against Representative Cory Gardner, who has questioned the science of climate change. In the Pennsylvania governor’s race, NextGen will back Tom Wolf, a Democrat, against the Republican incumbent, Tom Corbett, who in an interview this month called the science of climate change “a subject of debate.”