Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer is setting up a major political operation in Maine as part of his $50 million campaign against Republicans who dispute the science and impacts of global climate change.

NextGen Climate, a nonprofit established to carry out Steyer’s national effort, seeks high-level staff members in Maine for the kind of operation that is typically associated with a full-fledged campaign committee, according to job listings on idealist.org, a website that compiles job openings for nonprofit and political operations.

If the Maine positions get filled, the NextGen Climate operation will produce sustained activity that far exceeds the typical involvement by outside groups that work to influence Maine elections. Activity by such groups through independent expenditures – campaign ads on mailers, television and radio – is expected to hit an all-time high because of the national spotlight on Maine’s gubernatorial race and national political organizations’ new focus on influencing state legislatures.

Suzanne Henkels, a spokeswoman for NextGen Climate in San Francisco, confirmed the group is investing in a field operation in Maine and that it plans to partner with like-minded groups to create a grassroots campaign to accompany its advertising campaign. Henkels would not say how much NextGen Climate will spend in Maine, but Steyer has publicly committed to spending at least $50 million in seven states, including Maine.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation, and America can no longer afford to be held hostage by politicians that hide from or deny the scientific facts,” Henkels said. “NextGen Climate uses its resources – openly and transparently – to act in the best interests of the next generation by putting climate change on the ballot in the 2014 election cycle. We can’t afford extreme politicians like Governor Paul LePage, whose poor record, embarrassing behavior and outrageous comments place Maine’s health, safety and prosperity at risk.”

She added, “NextGen Climate is committed to holding our leaders accountable by exposing those who place special interests above Maine’s families, and supporting candidates like Rep. Mike Michaud, who will fight to build the clean energy future our kids deserve.”

Democrat Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler are running against the Republican governor in the Nov. 4 election.

A spokesman for LePage’s re-election campaign disputed NextGen Climate’s accusations.

“The reality is Governor LePage has a strong environmental record,” Alex Willette said Tuesday night.

Willette pointed out that in 2011 the LePage administration fined Chevron $900,000 – the second largest environmental penalty in the state’s history – for letting thousands of gallons of oil leak from an oil tank farm into the Penobscot River in Hampden.

National organizations like NextGen Climate commonly function as “drive-by” political action committees, dumping millions of dollars into ads, while forsaking any sustained operation. However, Henkels suggested the campaign in Maine will include a long-term effort to mobilize environmental groups and associated activists.

Steyer and NextGen Climate have identified LePage as one of seven candidates to target during this year’s elections. In May, operatives with Steyer’s super PAC told The New York Times that the national effort is designed to politically punish candidates or elected officials for questioning the established science of climate change. The involvement in the 2014 midterm contests is designed to make climate change a central issue in the 2016 presidential election.

LePage has come under fire for his environmental policies and for describing climate change as “a scam.” Last year he vetoed a measure that would have studied the effect of climate change on Maine businesses and residents. Five months later, LePage directed the Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate “opportunities and challenges” presented by changes “to our climate,” but that effort was considered far less comprehensive than the legislation he rejected.

Willette said LePage is aware that climate change could negatively impact Maine, especially its tourism industry which relies on a healthy environment.

“The governor believes in climate change, but he is concerned that other countries, like India and China, are not taking the threat as seriously as the United States,” Willette said. “He believes we all need to work together.”

LePage has drawn the ire of an assortment of environmental groups. Just this week, the Maine League of Conservation Voters launched a $400,000 television ad campaign contrasting the governor’s record with that of Michaud.

The Maine job postings by NextGen Climate mention Michaud’s candidacy in the job descriptions.

One reads, in part, “In Maine, NextGen will run a substantial grassroots organizing and communications program supporting Mike Michaud’s campaign for Governor. Our campaign will persuade and turn out targeted voters, while also working to educate the electorate and drive a public narrative about the implications of climate change.”

The NextGen Climate website also paints the governor as a threat, citing LePage’s comment last year that climate change will offer Maine “a lot of opportunities,” and describes his DEP chief, Patricia Aho, as a “former lobbyist who has ‘scuttled programs and fought against’ environmental and consumer protections.”

Steyer, 57, is a former hedge-fund manager who has devoted his wealth to environmental and political causes. He has a net worth of $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. The San Francisco resident originally hoped to raise $100 million for NextGen Climate’s 2014 campaign in seven states. According to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, NextGen Climate had raised nearly $28 million through July 31, most of it from Steyer himself.

The group also had spent over $2 million on independent expenditures, or ads, opposing Republican candidates, including $1 million against Scott Brown, the Republican who hopes to unseat U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire.

Such ads have not yet appeared in Maine. The next reporting date for PACs is Sept. 23.

NextGen Climate has registered as a PAC, according to disclosure documents with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. The group also has the option of making unlimited donations to an existing PAC.

It’s unclear if NextGen Climate will go that route. The job postings on idealist.org list a partner organization, Sons & Brothers LLC. That group is not listed as a corporation with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, but the state does list Sons & Brothers Solutions LLC, a group described as a political consulting firm.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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Correction: This story was revised at 10:57 a.m., Aug. 27, 2014, to reflect that NextGen Climate has registered as a PAC. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.