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Tom Steyer to Put GOP Presidential Climate Denier Candidates on 'The Hot Seat'

There's been some buzz lately about what the next step would be for billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's group Next Generation. It hit the news last week that he was shutting down the group's climate policy research arm, with speculation that he would shift resources to its political wing NextGen Climate (NGC).

Now we know. Monday NGC announced its first big campaign of the 2016 presidential election season, dubbed "The Hot Seat."

"If you're in a position that is different from 97 percent of scientists, that does raise basic competency questions in terms of whether people are going to want to give you the keys to the White House," said NextGen Climate's chief strategist Chris Lehane during a press call Monday.

The group describes the program as "a high-tech war room that will track Koch brothers-backed presidential candidates, put them in the Hot Seat for their science denial and support for policies that only serve the best interests of the Kochs, and press them on their plans to address climate change for the next generation." It's referring to the Republican presidential race as "The Koch Primaries," tying the candidates to big-spending fossil fuel-billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have vowed to drop almost a billion dollars to put someone who serves their anti-climate interests into the White House.

The campaign will include TV and radio ad buys, billboards and social media, with college campuses and young voters a particular priority.

"America is at an energy crossroads, and there is nearly a billion dollars in money from the Koch brothers’ network standing in the way of real solutions that will move our country forward," says NGC. "But there’s good news: Republican presidential hopefuls’ willingness to deny basic science and put our country at risk in their pursuit of the Kochs’ campaign cash is a serious liability with voters."

The San Francisco-based group will set up satellite offices in DC and key presidential primary states to work on "making climate denial into a liability with voters and force these candidates to answer to the American people." It's been teasing the new campaign with billboards, truck-drawn mobile billboards and a plane that flew over the Iowa Agriculture Summit with a banner that said, "Jeb Bush: I'm Not a Scientist."

NextGen Climate teased its Hot Seat campaign with this mobile billboard in New Hampshire. Photo credit: NextGen Climate

"From Iowa to New Hampshire, we'll be ready to strike when Republicans deny basic science and refuse to show meaningful climate leadership for our country and our kids," promises NGC. "NGC will expose the nexus between the nearly one billion dollars the Koch network plans to spend and the anti-science positions taken by Republican presidential candidates."

Lehane didn't attach a specific dollar figure to Steyer's likely spending in the upcoming race, but said, “He has made it clear he will spend what it takes. It still is a drop in the big oil bucket compared to what the other side is spending. We’re up against the most well-resourced special interests I think in the history of democracy. They will do whatever it takes to try to rig the system to keep in place an approach that generates enormous amounts of money for them regardless of its impact on our economic health, national security and the impact on our kids.”

NGC's research showed that among Iowa voters, the Koch Brothers had a negative 16 favorability, and that 71 percent of likely Iowa voters said they would be less inclined to support a candidate bankrolled by the Kochs. They also found that among young voters in four battleground states, likely to make up about a third of 2016 voters, only 9 percent had a favorable view of the Koch Brothers and oil companies such as Koch Industries had a 15/58 favorable/unfavorable rating. Forty-one percent said climate denial would disqualify a candidate, no matter what their other positions.

Fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch aren't popular with voters, nor are the climate-denying candidates they bankroll. Photo credit: NextGen Climate

The first batch of climate deniers NGC is putting on the Hot Seat include Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (the two official candidates), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Rand Paul announced his presidential bid in Louisville today, and NGC stood outside the event with its "lie detector test" to try to force him to reveal his positions on climate change. In the past he's hedged and said that he's "not sure anybody knows exactly why" climate change occurs and that the science behind it is "not conclusive." He's also said that someone who would tie extreme weather events like hurricanes to climate change is an "ignoramus." Those statements undermine claims that Paul could have wide appeal to younger voters.

"If Senator Paul thinks he’s going to be 'Nirvana' or 'Pearl Jam' for these young voters, what is his plan to address an issue that is clearly one of their top concerns?" says NGC.

Of Bush, being pushed by supporters as the most "electable" candidate, Lehane said, “He claims not to believe in the science. I think it’s particularly interesting he is from a state that will be particularly impacted by [climate change]. I think it is really hard to run an electability campaign when you’re talking about the fact you need to generate more support from young voters when you are taking a position that is a defining issue for young voters—that is going to be a signifier as to why they shouldn’t support him.”

The popular media narrative about NGC's 2014 spending—primarily Steyer's and estimated at about $75 million—was that it didn't yield much in the way of results. However, three of its seven priority candidates won, a decent record in what was a difficult election for progressive candidates overall. And unlike much of the money coming from the Koch Brothers, who have pledged to spend almost a billion dollars to elect a fossil fuel-friendly president next year, Steyer's money is not "dark"—he's been open about what he is spending and where.

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