Why is Tom Steyer spending millions on races Democrats are favored to win?

NextGen Climate, the political group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, outlined its plans for 2014 on Thursday. The goal is probably pretty simple: Make elected officials fear the greens' greenbacks.


Tom Steyer .(Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Its goal is clearly not to ensure that Democrats win the Senate. Here are the Republicans NextGen is targeting, and where, and how the latest polling shows they're likely to fare (according to Real Clear Politics averages). Four of them are Senate races, but all are ones that have been consistently considered key targets.

  • Colorado, Senate: Cory Gardner. Trails by 1.7 percent.
  • Florida, Governor: Rick Scott. Trails by 3.4 percent.
  • Iowa, Senate: Joni Ernst and Mark Jacobs. Ernst, the frontrunner in the primary, trails by 5.3 percent.
  • Maine, Governor: Paul LePage. Leads by 0.3 percent.
  • Michigan, Senate: Terri Lynn Land. Trails by 1.6 percent.
  • New Hampshire, Senate: Scott Brown. Trails by 5 percent.
  • Pennsylvania, Governor: Tom Corbett. Trails by 19 percent.

Nineteen percent! Why is NextGen/Steyer worried about carrying Democrat Tom Wolf over the finish line of a gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania, when he's up by 19 percent? Especially when there are a slew of Senate races that could ensure that Democrats keep the Senate, a top priority of the party? NextGen and Steyer aren't spending in any of these races:

  • Arkansas, where the Democrat leads by 4.8 percent.
  • Georgia, where the Democrat trails the leading Republican by 3 percent.
  • Louisiana, where the Democrat trails by 2.2 percent.
  • Montana, where the Democrat trails by 3 percent.
  • North Carolina, where the Democrat leads by 0.2 percent.

The average polling in races Steyer is targeting is +5.1 percent for the Democrat. In the tight Senate races above, it's a Republican lead of 2.64 percent. So why not invest in those races?

The first thought is that those states would be less receptive to NextGen's advertising message. That message, per its press announcement: to "use climate as a wedge issue, both to motivate voter turnout with the rising electorate and to demonstrate that being anti-science will hurt our opponents among persuadable voters."

But Post polling manager Peyton Craighill looked at data from a March 2013 Pew poll that shows no significant difference in concern about climate change between states that NextGen is targeting and those that it isn't. There isn't polling from each state that gives us a clear sense of how likely people are to vote on the issue of climate, but a March Gallup poll put it pretty far down in the list of priorities of American voters on the whole.

The answer is probably pretty simple. Note that President Obama won each of NextGen's targeted states in both 2008 and 2012. In each of the other five, he lost in 2012. In other words, the group is targeting races that largely lean toward the Democrat in states that went for Obama by an average of 7 percent two years ago. NextGen picked races it was pretty sure it was going to win. And that's it.

Why? Because what NextGen wants to do, it's safe to assume, is make elected officials fear them. The political inertia on climate change is due, in part, to the fact that voters aren't energized on the topic (see above) and therefore aren't putting pressure on elected officials to take action. What the environmental movement has been very bad at is the sort of electoral hardball that would get politicians without that political pressure.  Take the Tea Party. In the aftermath of the disparate group's failure to win many Republican primaries so far this year, it's been easy to think that the Republican establishment has regained control of the party. But as multiple outlets (including Politico) have noted, the establishment actually grew more conservative in the wake of the Tea Party's primary success in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Republicans were afraid of the Tea Party.

No one is really afraid of environmentalists. What NextGen certainly wants to do is instill a little fear. To do that, they have to win. And to win — well, it doesn't hurt to pick races where the odds are pretty good that will happen.

Correction: This piece originally stated that Obama lost each of the five states in both 2008 and 2012. He won North Carolina in 2008.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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