DENVER (AP) — When he vowed to spend as much as $50 million of his own money, and raise the same from like-minded donors, billionaire Tom Steyer electrified the political world with his promise to make climate change an issue in this year's midterm elections.
Those elections are now two months away, and the former hedge fund manager is running out of time.
On pace to raise far less than the widely touted $100 million, his group has a relatively minor presence on the airwaves. Steyer now says his biggest impact this year will be an old-fashioned, get-out-the-vote ground game.
"Our strategy is to do direct voter contact," Steyer said in a recent interview. "Particularly in an off-year election, which depends more on turnout, actually having people going out and directly speaking with voters face to face is actually the thing that changes elections."
But Steyer's burgeoning political operation will focus on only a handful of races, bypassing several coal- and-oil rich states where Democrats are in highly competitive Senate contests that could determine control of the chamber. At a time when he's still outlining his plans for staff and volunteers, his free-spending conservative opponents have been at work wooing voters for months.
"It's expensive and very time-intensive," Dustin Zvonek, the Colorado director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said of motivating voters. "It's not just something where you can flip a switch and turn it on."
To be sure, Steyer hasn't backed away from the midterms. He's given more money than anyone else this year to the myriad of political groups spending freely to buy television ads, call voters and pack mailboxes with fliers. Since the 2012 election, he's personally donated almost $26 million to his super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, with $5 million of that earmarked for a donation to a group run by former top aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that's focused on keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.
But NextGen has gotten little other support, collecting only about $1.7 million from other donors through the end of July. Steyer's nonprofit, NextGen Climate, does not have to disclose its finances, but it also cannot be explicitly political in its actions.
By comparison, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already raised enough money to spend $15 million this cycle, including more than $2 million to help Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in his race against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. It's one of the races Steyer cares about most, and NextGen has spent less than $800,000. By the time Election Day arrives, the Chamber expects to have spent $50 million on TV ads, mail and phone calls — an increase from the $32 million the business group spent in 2012.
This week, Steyer's team announced plans for the final weeks of the campaign that focused on using hundreds of paid and volunteer organizers to turn out environmentally minded voters in four races for U.S. Senate — Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire — and in races for governor in Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania.
NextGen says it spent the summer building its field operation and now has about 700 staffers and volunteers on the ground in those seven states, and wants about 200 per state by October. It is opening field offices in several states, hoping to reach 1 million voters it believes will cast their ballots on climate issues.
Despite those ambitious numbers, Steyer is still playing catch-up.
Americans for Prosperity, for example, has been knocking on doors in Colorado since May to find voters likely to support conservative candidates. The group has more than two dozen paid staffers and hundreds of volunteers who help with knocking on doors and staffing phone banks. Nationally, the group backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has more than 250 paid staffers working in 32 states.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate, and NextGen isn't bothering with the tight races in Louisiana, Kentucky and Alaska — each home to strong energy industries where the Democrats have not embraced Steyer's calls for strong action to combat climate change.
Instead, he's targeting two competitive Senate races, in Colorado and Iowa, and two races favoring Democrats, in Michigan and New Hampshire. He's also investing in Democratic candidates in the three races for governor.
"We want to be in places where there's a pretty distinct spread between candidates" on climate issues, Steyer said.
Steyer and his team emphasize that their group is still relatively new when compared with groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which the Kochs launched in 2004 and has had state-based operations for years. This is their first national campaign effort.
But they point to their work backing Democrat Terry McAuliffe in last year's election for Virginia governor, where NextGen says it made 255,000 voter contacts on his behalf, as evidence they can run a solid get out the vote effort on short notice. In a conference call with reporters this week, Steyer's top strategist, Chris Lehane, said NextGen is already having an impact, noting that Republicans it has targeted in Colorado and Florida have started to tout their own environmental credentials.
"Anyone who's running for office has no choice but to talk about this as a top-tier issue," Lehane said of climate change.
Elliott reported from Washington.
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