At first glance, the digital billboards raised in Colorado's Grand Junction ahead of a debate this week appear to be a generic attack from the left aimed at Republican Senate candidate Rep. Cory Gardner. "Opposes marriage equality? There's no debate," one of the ads reads, directing viewers to KeepCoryOut.com.
But the fine print contains a surprise. The ads were paid for by NextGen Climate, the super PAC bankrolled by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who vowed to make climate change a wedge issue in the midterms.
The billboards are fresh evidence of a shift in strategy that's playing out among environmental heavyweights. As their checkbooks expand and they seek more political influence, major green groups are no longer limiting themselves to talking about a candidate's environmental record. Now, everything is on the table.
It's not typical fare for environmentalists, whose bread and butter has long been global warming and clean air. What's driving the new focus? Strategists say it's a way for the groups to increase their efficacy, complementing their climate push with messaging that will resonate with a broader swath of the electorate.
Surveys show that even when voters care about the environment, it often doesn't drive them to the polls.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in January found that 80 percent of respondents ranked efforts to bolster the nation's economy as the top policy priority. Only 29 percent of those polled cited action to address global warming as a pressing issue.
Critics deride the broad messaging push as a sign that NextGen is unable to win votes with a strictly pro-climate stance. "If you're in Colorado and you talk about oil and gas issues, you're seeing people reject the anti-fossil-fuel agenda," said Matt Dempsey, a senior director at FTI consulting and former Republican Senate aide.
But environmentalists are undeterred, and the strategy is spreading.
In Colorado, NextGen has attacked Gardner on a variety of issues in his race to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. One ad broadcast the Republican's climate denial before slamming his stance on a wide array of social issues, including opposition to marriage equality and support for efforts to ban birth control. Along with gay marriage, the latest billboard campaign attacks the Republican over his stance on birth control and climate change.
"Climate fits very neatly in a series of issues that define the Republican Party as extreme and out of touch, so in Colorado we're looking to frame Cory Gardner as an extremist," NextGen chief strategist Chris Lehane said in a press call Wednesday.
In Iowa, the League of Conservation Voters in July launched an ad attacking Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst for wanting to shut down the Education Department.
"This has the potential to really expand the appeal of our message," said Daniel J. Weiss, LCV's senior vice president for campaigns. "It's better if you can talk to people about several things they are concerned with rather than just one challenge and it helps to really paint a picture of who the candidate is on the whole."
NextGen is also pursuing the pan-issue attack strategy in Iowa, running an ad that accuses Ernst of promising to protect tax breaks benefiting companies that have outsourced jobs overseas. The ad didn't mention the environment once.
The group's approach to the Ernst race shows how climate has become a starting point for environmentalists as they work to portray a candidate as part of a radical fringe. The spot on tax breaks—which was rated by Politifact as false—was the first in a series that went on to highlight Ernst's ties to companies that oppose biofuels and renewable energy in Iowa.
Taken together, the ads are intended to show that Ernst has taken funds from and pledged support to interests that will hurt the economy and environment.
"It is often the case that when a candidate is on the wrong side of science, they are likely on the wrong side of a number of issues critical to voters, and we will continue to draw this contrast between the candidates," NextGen spokesman Bobby Whithorne told National Journal.
In Florida, NextGen has hit Florida Gov. Rick Scott for his denial of climate science, but hasn't shied away from talking about his involvement in other political scandals as well. The group has sent emails about Florida's investment in rail company All Aboard Florida, which has ties to Scott's former chief of staff, and his use of on-duty police officers at a campaign rally.
"I see it as more expedient," said Andrew Hoffman, director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. "We know that the environment isn't at the top of people's priorities list. Climate change is too far away and people will say they're more worried about the economy or other issues right now. So if there's a particular candidate that doesn't recognize the science, you open up the full scope and attack."
Lately, a bulk of that attack has been centered around ties to big money. NextGen's latest attack on Scott highlighted his donations from large sugar companies that had been linked to water pollution in the Everglades. Ads in several other races have tried to tie Republican candidates to oil companies and special interests, and Steyer this year publicly went after the Koch brothers.
"Politicians are now being attacked by saying they're in the pockets of the Koch brothers," said Hoffman. "And on the right they'll say that Steyer and [George Soros] and those crazy lefties are trying to take over the political process. There's a lot of distaste for big money."
Lehane compared the messaging on donations to "tobacco-ization," raising the question about whether a candidate can be trusted if they've taken money from polluters in the way that past candidates were pilloried for taking funds from cigarette companies.
"Linking a polluter message to a Republican candidate ... that is explicitly a bullseye climate message," Lehane said. "Broadly speaking there are different messages that work really effectively "¦ and are part and parcel."
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