By Laura Barron-Lopez - 08/17/14 02:00 PM EDT
Voters don't hear the words “climate change” when Democrats in competitive races in California explain what's causing the worst drought in the state’s history.
President Obama has repeatedly blamed global warming for episodes of severe weather, including wildfires and droughts in the Golden State, but Democrats seeking to unseat Republicans in the hard-hit Central Valley region are balking at that argument.
“The way folks talk about the drought out here is: ‘We have a problem, let’s fix the problem,’” said Amanda Renteria, a Democrat challenging Rep. David Valadao (R).
“Climate change doesn't really belong in the question, or answer,” said Renteria, one of her party’s best hopes of gaining a House seat this fall.
California’s drought is in its third year, with no signs of ending. It’s expected to cost the state $2.2 billion this year.
Renteria’s race against Valadao in California's 21st District is smack dab in the middle of the agriculture-heavy Central Valley, where the drought is the single biggest issue for voters.
Renteria isn’t a climate skeptic and thinks there is something “going on” with climate change.
But her campaign isn’t focused on pinning the drought to the effects of global warming.
It’s focused on how federal and state officials were unprepared to deal with the drought, and how Central Valley lawmakers should have pushed Congress to take steps to build water storage infrastructure to help farmers.
“The fact that we need an answer, and needed an answer for years — this has been coming, we knew it was coming — adds to questions about who our leaders are, and what is going on in Congress,” she said.
Other Democrats in California districts impacted by the drought are taking a similar tack.
Rep. Ami Bera (D), who faces a tough race this fall against Republican Doug Ose, is a strong advocate for tackling climate change, but global warming isn't his focus when he talks about the drought with constituents. Instead, he talks about water storage.
“California's historic drought is impacting Sacramento County families, small businesses and farmers and we are continuing to do everything we can to both help those being hurt in the short term, and to fight for comprehensive, long-term solutions to secure water access and storage,” Bera wrote in an email.
Michael Eggman, the Democrat challenging Rep. Jeff Denham (R) in California’s 10th District, said he believes scientists when they say climate change is making weather patterns worse. But he distanced himself from the Obama administration and wouldn't comment on the president’s climate change message.
Asked if voters are responsive to Obama's initiatives, Eggman said, “Voters are concerned with the drought's immediate impact on our agricultural economy.”
“Most of the folks affected by the drought need immediate relief, which means new water storage, reclamation programs and water infrastructure,” Eggman said in a email.
He also stressed the need to invest in water facilities and renewable energy projects for both short- and long-term solutions, to help people find work.
Obama visited the Central Valley in February to tout a $1 billion climate fund meant to aid farmers and communities dealing with drought, wildfires and floods by investing in research to gather data on the impacts of climate change, and help build up infrastructure.
When announcing the fund, Obama's science adviser John Holdren said to expect more talk “about the connection between increasing frequency in the intensity of drought and climate change” from the president and the White House.
Since then, the White House has released a video in which Holdren said the drought and wildfires raging across California and other western states will continue to happen more frequently due to climate change.
Valadao and other Republicans in the three tight races say climate change has nothing to do with the drought.
They argue regulations promulgated by Obama’s administration are making the drought worse, and they’re using that argument to attack Democrats.
In the Central Valley, Valadao hears every day about “people suffering due to environmental regulations,” not climate change, said his spokesman Tal Eslick.
Eslick said people in the Central Valley viewed Obama’s speech on climate change, when he visited the area, as a “lecture.”
“Voters are concerned about whether there is going to be water coming out when they turn the faucet on,” said Dave Gilliard, a campaign consultant for Denham. “These big scientific debates are not relevant to a farmer who can't irrigate his crop at this point in time.”
Ose too considers the drought a natural "recurring part of the meteorological reality" and slammed Bera for not devoting more attention to the issue.
House Republicans passed legislation earlier this year that would roll back environmental regulations that prevent California from redirecting water to the farmland. The regulations were intended to protect endangered species in rivers and streams.
Democrats generally oppose the bill, claiming it tries to redirect water that doesn't actually exist.
More recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation passed by the state Legislature that would direct $7.5 billion to ease the impacts of the drought, sending it to the November ballot.