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Science & Environment

Climate Change Activists Come Up Short In Midterm Elections

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Yesterday was a grim one for liberal SuperPacs. One of the biggest spenders was NextGen Climate Action. The group had spent tens of millions of dollars attacking Republicans on the climate change issue in seven contests. NextGen Climate Action is funded mainly by one donor - hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. NPR's Peter Overby takes a closer look at Steyer's spending and why it didn't pay off.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: All told, Tom Steyer put $74 million into the midterms. Nearly all of it went to NexGen Climate Action, so the question is was that $74 million well invested?

TOM STEYER: Oh God, yes. Oh my, gosh, there is no - look, the way that we make social change in the United States is through the political process. And there's no doubt that we've heightened this issue incredibly. We built up an incredible base of supporters around the country and we absolutely surfaced it in a way that's never happened before in elections.

OVERBY: Among the winners last night were four Republicans than NexGen Climate had targeted - Governor Paul LePage in Maine, plus Senators elect Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOVERNOR PAUL LEPAGE: We want to go back to the American ideals. And, folks, America is the greatest country.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Amen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR ELECT CORY GARDNER: It is time for a new direction. It is time for a new way forward, and we did the job tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JONI ERNST: Well, Iowa, we did it. We did it.

(APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: And in Florida, another Republican winner, Governor Rick Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: It is time to put all the division behind us and come together.

OVERBY: Florida was NexGen Climate's biggest loss. Steyer and his strategists said they met their goal for voter turnout in places they targeted, but Scott more than made up for it in other parts of the state. At the University of Florida, political scientist Daniel Smith said voters might've responded more favorably to a positive ad campaign about Scott's Democratic challenger.

DANIEL SMITH: NexGen missed the boat in terms of taking a more positive view towards Charlie Crist, as opposed to trying to bring down Rick Scott.

OVERBY: NexGen Climate did have three wins - Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Senator-elect Gary Peters in Michigan and Governor-elect Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania. At 350.org, a group working on the climate change issue, U.S. policy director Jason Kowalski said NexGen Climate has helped to raise concerns about climate change.

JASON KOWALSKI: I think it's going to take a little while for that to catch up with politicians in Washington. They're often the last to know when it comes these cultural shifts.

OVERBY: Steyer told NPR, as he has said before, that he's in this for more than one election.

STEYER: Do I think that was money well spent? Incredibly well spent - I would do it 10 times over.

OVERBY: Of course, another Republican who won yesterday, somebody NexGen Climate didn't target, is Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. He's called climate change a hoax.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JAMES INHOFE: You keep saying - and I hear it over and over again - climate change is real, global warming is real. It's real. It's real. It's real. And if you say it enough times, then people are going to think it's real.

OVERBY: Come January, Inhofe is likely to become chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.