By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's political group on Wednesday said it plans to focus on winning over a narrow band of voters persuadable on climate change issues in key states ahead of U.S. elections in November.
NextGen Climate, Steyer's group, said it has made a targeted push to gain the support of more than one million voters in competitive races in seven states, hiring more than 700 staff and volunteers and opening more than 20 offices across the country.
The group, with $50 million in backing from Steyer, says it hopes to counter the financial influence of the fossil fuel industry by supporting lawmakers who would work to combat climate change.
NextGen Climate has directed paid advertisements in states such as Florida, where a close race for governor is under way, at a small group of truly undecided voters it refers to as "super shifters."
"That's an important band because these are going to be really close elections. Whichever way that band hits can certainly impact whoever ends up being the ultimate winner," Chris Lehane, chief strategist for NextGen Climate, told reporters on a conference call.
Congressional battles, in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, and governor's races in Pennsylvania and Maine are also being targeted.
Control of the 100-member U.S. Senate is up for grabs in November. Democrats currently hold 53 seats plus support from two independents, to Republicans' 45. Republicans control the House of Representatives and are expected to maintain their majority.
Lehane said voters are very open to messages on the dangers of climate change on a local level and that the group has attempted to capitalize on this.
Altogether, the group said NextGen Climate canvassers plan to visit more than 750,000 homes before election, with 125,000 homes already contacted.
While jobs and the economy are typically top issues for voters, Steyer's group has attempted to bring climate change to the forefront and give Democratic candidates a reason to highlight their stance on climate protection.
In some states, the group has linked its message to other causes such as support for gay marriage, in hopes of attracting voters by reinforcing negative views of the Republican brand.
"We're beginning to see green shoots," Lehane said. "We are playing offense and the Republicans are playing defense."
(The story corrects sixth paragraph to show NextGen is targeting Maine governor's race, not a congressional race.)
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, editing by Ros Krasny and Bernard Orr)