Billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer hopes to shame GOP presidential candidates over their climate change skepticism in the 2016 campaign.
He is also seeking to tie Republicans to his arch foes: Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who spent more than $100 million in the 2014 midterms behind GOP candidates opposed to environmental regulations.
“And, in effect, the Kochs and their allies are creating what we see as a new political party. Instead of the Grand Old Party, the Republicans now have a new Koch Republican Party, the party of Big Oil.”
The Koch brothers effort in 2014 was successful. The GOP gained seats in the House and took back the Senate, making Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the majority leader.
One of McConnell's first actions in setting the Senate's schedule was to move legislation requiring President Obama to approve the Keystone pipeline. Obama vetoed the measure after it was sent to him by the GOP Congress, but the effort signaled a change in Washington.
In the 2014 cycle, Steyer spent $74 million while NextGen kicked in $11 million, mostly on losing candidates.
Steyer hopes to recover from the 2014 beating to help Democrats retain the White House and possibly take back the Senate in 2016, when Republicans face a more difficult map. The GOP is defending 24 seats in 2016 compared to 10 for Democrats.
Lehane said they are honing the lessons they learned in the 2014 midterm elections to inform their strategy for 2016.
The initial effort, launched Monday with a video, is being dubbed the “Hot Seat.” It’s the first NextGen campaign to feature its dual priorities of highlighting GOP candidates’ climate skepticism and their links to the Kochs.
“The Hot Seat will really seek to turn the nearly billion dollars that stands between our kids and the solution on climate as an oil barrel tied to the ankles of the Koch Republicans by shining a spotlight on the Koch Republicans, disrupting the Koch Republicans, engaging young voters and localizing the issue,” Lehane said.
NextGen is targeting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is expected to announce his candidacy this week, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), another GOP White House contender.
Staffers for the group will bring a lie detector kit to Paul’s presidential announcement on Tuesday and ask him to answer whether he believes that humans are significantly contributing to climate change.
NextGen will also follow Walker in his upcoming European tour to pressure him to endorse or reject the climate policies of some of the nations he visits.
“By the end of the tour, he’ll either have answered the questions or be in a position, we believe, where his tour will be compared with Chevy Chase’s European vacation,” Lehane said, referring to the 1985 “National Lampoon” movie.
The group is framing the next election as a choice between “big oil,” which wants to further its agenda at the expense of the planet, and a future based on renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions.
“This election represents an electoral crossroads,” Lehane said. “With the window closing on the time we have to address climate change for our kids, 2016 represents the last best chance to move the politics on this issue.”
In 2014, Steyer worked to make climate a top issue of the election. But, in the end, only two Steyer-supported Senate candidates won: Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
But Steyer and his advisers maintain they still succeeded in bringing climate to the forefront.
The Michigan and New Hampshire races also showed the potential of two NextGen strategies that it will carry over to 2016: localizing environmental issues and labeling candidates as stand-ins for the Kochs, whose corporate holdings include oil exploration, transportation and refining.
Last year, Steyer was compared to the Kochs and labeled as a Democratic answer to them.
The activists resists the comparison, and Lehane tried to frame the comparison Monday as more of an effort to neutralize the Kochs, whose network of political influence said that it plays to spend $889 million in the 2016 race.
Unlike last year, Steyer isn’t committing to any dollar figures yet. Lehane only promised that Steyer “will spend what it takes,” and said the stakes are much higher in a presidential race than the midterms.
NextGen also plans to get involved in Senate races and in both the primary and general presidential elections.
Lehane spoke almost exclusively about the Republican field, though he expressed support for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is expected to be the top Democratic contender.
He declined to say how Steyer and NextGen will be involved with Democrats and Clinton, but said “there will certainly be more to come that may relate to that specific question.”
Environmentalists have generally supported Clinton, though they have been frustrated that she has not taken a position on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.