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Environmental groups are spending an unprecedented $85 million in the 2014 elections

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In the 2014 midterm election, facing off against voluminous spending by conservative groups and powered by a billionaire of their own, Tom Steyer, top environmental organizations say they are set to spend over $85 million -- a record amount -- trying to influence key races.

The motivation is clear. The groups are driven by the growing urgency of the climate change problem in general, and also the fate of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, which some fear might be hindered in a Republican-controlled Congress.

The spending plans are laid out in a document, acquired by The Post, that summarizes the activities of five top green groups -- the Environmental Defense Action Fund, Steyer's NextGen Climate, the NRDC Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), and the Sierra Club -- and has been circulated internally among them. Asked about the document, which is dated October 17, LCV president Gene Karpinski commented, "this is by far the biggest investment that the environmental community has ever made in politics." Karpinski said that LCV will spend over $25 million this year, compared with $5 million in the 2010 election cycle and $15 million in 2012.

Heather Wong, communications director for Steyer's NextGen Climate, said that the group had spent "just over $50 million" in both state level and congressional races as of October 20. So it appears that NextGen represents the largest part of the environmental pie, with the League of Conservation Voters coming in second. The next largest group contributor is the Environmental Defense Action Fund, which has spent “approaching $4 million,” according to the group's Joe Bonfiglio -- and that includes support for a number of pro-environment Republican candidates, as well as Democratic ones.

On top of the "more than $85 million overall" in campaign spending outlined in the document, there is also another $5 million plus that has been raised directly for candidates in the 2014 election cycle by the LCV Action Fund, a PAC, which is supported by the NRDC Action Fund PAC. This money has been raised through the Web site The number is "more than double the amount that was raised for pro-environment candidates in 2012," notes the memo.

The document outlines expenditures of over $40 million on six key Senate races by election day. Up through October 24, according to LCV, that includes $1.9 million to support Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska, $12.1 million to support Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, $7.2 million to support Rep. Bruce Braley in Iowa,  $6.6 million on Rep. Gary Peters in Michigan, $4 million to back Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and $2.4 million on Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina.

"In each of these races, our groups are among the biggest, if the [sic] not the biggest, spender on behalf of the pro-environment candidate," the document reads. A number of these races remain extremely close: The latest NBC News/Marist poll, for instance, shows Mark Udall down by just 1 percent to Cory Gardner, the Republican challenger in Colorado; and Kay Hagan tied with her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, in North Carolina.

"They have clearly become a tour de force in the electoral politics world," says Ty Matsdorf, an adviser to the Democrat-leaning Senate Majority PAC, of the environmental groups. Matsdorf says that in North Carolina, green group spending has "helped put Thom Tillis on the defensive, in terms of his ties with the oil [industry]." (Here’s the text of one such ad.)

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending, officially lists considerably smaller numbers for the green groups as of this writing. But according to LCV, this is because not all of the funds have been spent or reported spent yet, and also because of expenditures in gubernatorial and other state-level races.

The candidates being supported, like Rep. Gary Peters in Michigan, have often shown their willingness to strongly defend the science of climate change -- and to criticize their opponents for denying it. "We need to make sure that climate change denying is a political liability," says LCV's Karpinski.

Precisely what these green groups are up against in the races they're targeting is harder to put a finger on. One conservative group that has been very active in the 2014 election is Americans for Prosperity, whose 2014 ad buys have been “upwards of $50 million” across television, radio, and digital media, according to spokesman Levi Russell. AFP also has 600 paid staff and had knocked on “well over 1 million doors” as of September, Russell says. The group is partly backed by the wealthy conservatives Charles and David Koch, among other funders.

According to a recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, groups supporting conservative or Republican candidates are expected to exceed expenditures by liberal groups “by a wide margin” in two key areas: "spending by House and Senate campaign committees, and money spent by secretive outside groups." So the greens certainly have some basis for thinking they’re being outspent.

For his part, AFP’s Russell questions the effectiveness of the overall environmental message. “I think if you talked to the average citizen,” he says, “what’s foremost on their mind is the cost of living and affordability. And frankly, a lot of the issues being pushed on the government level by the environmentalist movement make their energy costs go up.”

Environmental representatives said that just as important as the volume of money spent was the degree of strategy and coordination by the five groups. They were driven together, says the Sierra Club's political director Melissa Williams, by the stakes involved in this election, particularly with respect to the fate of the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. "In looking at the president’s climate plan, and where we think that we need to go, we knew that our Senate champs need to get back in -- Senators Udall, Hagan, and Shaheen needed to get back to the Senate," said Williams.

A recent Brookings Institution analysis outlines a number of ways in which a Republican-controlled Senate could potentially hamper EPA regulations of greenhouse gas emissions. That includes onerous hearings on EPA and its activities and attempts to cut its funding, or perhaps even legislation that would remove the agency's authority to take on global warming. (However, such legislation would surely face a filibuster and, after that, presidential veto.)

To stop this, green groups have pooled their efforts. The October 17 document gives particular examples of this coordination in the Colorado and North Carolina Senate races. In Colorado, it says, "a targeted likely to have their door knocked on several times by LCV, receive multiple pieces of mail and online ads from the Sierra Club (through its Voter Education Fund), and a live phone call from another group." In North Carolina, "LCV Victory Fund will knock on more than 600,000 doors...Sierra Club will send more than 1.3 million pieces of GOTV mail (through its Voter Education Fund), and EDAF will generate more than 300,000 phone calls."

Targeted voters will be those in demographics that tend to support climate change action, including "unmarried women, African-Americans, Latinos and young voters with low to moderate voting propensity." Across the six senate races above, the green groups project that they will make nearly 17 million contacts with such voters through mailing, phone calls, and knocking on doors. They stress that in a tight race, like the all important North Carolina Senate battle, "mobilizing 28,000 drop-off voters would give Sen. Hagan a 1 percent boost, which could be a decisive margin in this race."

Of course, whether their efforts can tilt any of these tight races remains to be seen -- and also depends heavily on expenditures and efforts on the other side of the 2014 electoral arms race. "What we are planning to spend is only a small drop in the big oil bucket compared to what the other side is spending," commented NextGen Climate's Heather Wong.