This election cycle, environmental groups spent heavily in races across the country and saw many down-ballot candidates they backed win election.
“Where we’ve played, we feel like it’s been great. I think all across the country, you’re going to find whether it’s us, Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), our issues resonate,” Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, told The Hill.
Cathy Duvall, director of public advocacy and partnerships with the Sierra Club, said one-on-one conversations with voters were more effective this election because of a greater public awareness and understanding of green energy issues.
“Four years, six years ago, we weren’t actually trying to create the clean energy economy. So the conversation we were having about it was by definition very superficial. The conversation we’re having about it now is much deeper,” Duvall said.
While environmental groups are painting their election work as a victory over the fossil fuel industry, the effect of spending by green groups in races is hard to gauge. Polls show voters ranked environmental issues below the economy and healthcare.
In a poll from Harris Interactive in late October, voters placed energy policy in sixth place and environmental policy dead last when asked to weigh the importance of 10 different issues to their vote.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade group for the oil and natural-gas industry, said it welcomed the election’s results and was committed to working with Obama to boost domestic production.
“Americans have made their decision. We look forward to continuing our work with the president and helping him fulfill his campaign promise to increase domestic oil and natural gas production that will create American jobs and strengthen our economy,” said API CEO Jack Gerard in a statement on Wednesday.
Gerard called on the president to approve the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and undo Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that the industry says are unduly burdensome.
The LCV, though, is pointing to a number of new senators who received outside spending from green groups and whom it says will be vocal advocates for clean-energy policies in Washington, including Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and former Maine Gov. Angus King (I).
The LCV backed all the aforementioned Senate candidates, outspending every other environmental group. It poured $13.7 million into contests to top its last three election cycles combined.
Green groups also claim that while their shooting percentage was lower in House races, they believe their efforts were enough to successfully flip a handful of seats to Democrats.
“We’re growing as an organization because activists across the country are fighting back against the worst House of Representatives ever on environmental issues,” LCV spokesman Jeff Gohringer told The Hill.
Environmental groups believe they had their most significant impact in the New Mexico Senate race.
Green groups went into that race collectively — and early — to aid Heinrich in his match-up with former Rep. Heather Wilson (R). Heinrich’s pedigree as a conservationist — he served on the state’s Sierra Club executive board — made him a natural ally for green groups.
Several factors aided green groups in that race, Duvall said.
The smaller, less expensive media market gave their dollars more weight, said Duvall. That the groups coordinated an early entry before better-financed conservative outfits had a stake in the race also aided Heinrich.
“We knew it was going to be a competitive race and that we wanted to go in early,” Duvall said. “It immediately produced a huge advantage for Congressman Heinrich.”
While environmentalists feel confident their impact in that race was measurable, it was likely more dubious elsewhere.
While Warren unseated Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), energy and environmental issues were not prominent in that race — though green groups argued Brown’s voting record and contributions from the oil industry did not mesh with the more liberal Massachusetts electorate.
And with the amount of cash that poured into Virginia’s hotly contested Senate race, it is unclear whether environmentalists’ messaging did much of anything to move the pegs. They certainly tried, though, as LCV spent more than $2 million on the race.
In Wisconsin, green groups entered the fray late in the contest, when Baldwin already had amassed considerable momentum. And in Maine, King already had a sizable lead before green groups opened their wallets.
Environmental groups were less successful in the House, with several GOP incumbents keeping their jobs despite coordinated attacks against them.
GOP Reps. Dan Benishek (Mich.), Jim Renacci (Ohio), Chris Gibson (N.Y.) and Mike Coffman (Colo.) all staved off outside expenditures from green groups and will return to Capitol Hill next year.
LCV and Sierra Club might have tipped the scales against GOP incumbents in a few tight House races, but the incumbents in those contests were already widely regarded as vulnerable.
Democratic candidates the groups supported in Illinois (Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, over GOP Rep. Joe Walsh, and Cheri Bustos, over GOP Rep. Bobby Schilling), in New York (former Rep. Dan Maffei, over GOP Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle) and in Texas (state Rep. Pete Gallego, over GOP Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco) will call Washington their second home beginning in January.
And the groups also spent money hoping to oust Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), though his race with Democratic challenger Ami Bera remained too close to call.