Steyer adds ‘moneyball’ to climate politics

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Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer is launching a data-driven campaign across seven states for the 2014 midterms to prove he’s not all talk when it comes to hurting “climate deniers” at the polls.

Steyer is using his success in last year’s Virginia governor’s race, where he funneled $8 million to destroy then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s bid, as a beta test for his midterm models.

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Now, the hedge fund manager turned environmentalist wants to bring “moneyball” to politics, and he says his team of strategists at NextGen Climate, who come from every “winning” Democratic presidential campaign over the last 30 years, are just the people to do it.

To put global warming at the forefront of American politics in 2014, which Steyer’s right-hand man and top Democratic strategist Chris Lehane has called a “pivot” year for climate, NextGen will focus on the data of climate change and turning out voters who will back candidates that want action on the issue.

That means borrowing an idea based on the “moneyball” thesis of baseball. The book by Michael Lewis, which inspired a movie of the same name, starring Brad Pitt, tells the story of how the 2002 Oakland A’s used statistical analysis to buy assets, or players, that were undervalued by other teams and sell ones overvalued by other teams to level the playing field in what many consider the unfair game of baseball.

That’s what Steyer says he wants: to “level the political playing field” through field work and data-driven modeling to locally and strategically target voters and identify non-traditional voter blocs. Much like the A’s plan that brought in some once written-off players, it’s about targeting undervalued voters that the opposition previously expected to be out of play in a midterm election year.

“This is the year, in our view, where we are able to demonstrate you can use climate — if you do it well and in a smart way — as a wedge issue to win in political races,” Lehane told a small group of reporters on Wednesday. “The side that does a better job of changing or expanding the voter pool is the side that has the competitive advantage.”

NextGen has no illusions. While Steyer has said he will commit $50 million of his own money and fundraise $50 million from donors toward the goal, the groups know its fiscal contributions to the midterms will be a “drop in the big oil bucket” compared to what the other side is throwing into the game.

But when it comes to pro-Democratic groups, NextGen is one of, if not the, biggest players out there. And Steyer’s $50 million isn’t a ceiling: he could very well spend more.

Undeterred by the odds, he’s choosing to pick fights with known, staunch climate skeptics in the Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire and Iowa Senate races, and the Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaigns.

Step 1 in each race will be to brand the opponent as a “science denier.”

From there, NextGen will utilize nano voter mobilization, targeting voters it predicts will react to a message on climate change.

That means college students, millennials, Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and mothers.

Next comes the moneyball. By strategically extending its “get out the vote” and “persuasion” tactics beyond typical base voters, NextGen will target communities significantly hit by climate-related issues.

The streamlined strategy also goes back to Steyer’s background in the business world.

“The guy is a wizard with numbers,” Lehane said of Steyer, which is why NextGen is playing “moneyball” politics to fight conservative goliaths like billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.

And once climate change is framed as “an enterprise challenge or an enterprise threat” to families, then everything changes and it’s cast in a different light, Lehane said.

To Steyer, it’s about localizing the issue through conversation, such as on increased cases of asthma for children or whether homeowners’ flood insurance is going up.

The final element in the equation for NextGen is to disrupt the dynamics of races by undermining the trust and character of climate skeptics.

The fight, Lehane says, is the modern-day version of doctors versus the tobacco industry. They will pin the opponent on their ties to the fossil fuel industry, pitting them against the best interest of specific communities within their state.

Despite the heavy partisan rhetoric coming out of Congress, NextGen is optimistic that its granular strategy will triumph over the likes of the conservative fossil fuel-friendly Koch brothers.

“We are never going to have as much money but all we need is enough for David’s slingshot is to fire through, and to fire fast and to fire quick to be able to reach the big oil Goliath,” Lehane said.

Still, NextGen won’t be involved in top races for vulnerable Democrats that could put the party’s control of Senate in jeopardy. Top targeted seats in Louisiana, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and others are held by pro-energy Democrats.

It signals the underlying goal: climate change policies, not political domination. It’s bigger than 2014 for Steyer and his team of climate activists — they want the conversation around greenhouse gas emissions, carbon taxes on big polluters and the like to change and to dominate campaigns for years to come.

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