Energy & Environment

Environmental groups shift strategies to win support for candidates in midterms


Conservation groups are linking the threat of global warming to health care and other prominent issues as they seek to win more support for candidates backing climate change policies in the midterms.

Studies repeatedly have indicated that people rarely vote on climate change even if they care about it.

To counter that dynamic, the political arms of groups including the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund are spending millions this fall to link climate change to the economy, corporatism and health care — the number one issue Democrats are running on this year.

{mosads}The groups are spending significantly more than in past midterms to drive home those connections. LCV committed to spending $60 million on 2018 races, more than it has ever spent before. The Sierra Club estimates its expenses will total over $6 million — much higher than what the group spent in 2014.

Will Jordan, a senior research associate at the Global Strategy Group, insisted that climate change is more of an issue in this election than in past campaigns given rising concerns about weather events and a United Nations paper that found the world is running out of time to deal with the warming climate.

“That being said, health care is a larger issue,” Jordan acknowledged.

Still, he said concerns about the planet dovetail with public health and actions the Trump administration has taken to weaken emissions standards that could lead to more pollution.

“I think that at the end of the day it’s going to be fundamentally an election about the major issues: health care, Donald Trump, accountability themes of the election, but at the same time you see this argument get threaded into those,” he said of climate change.

In Virginia, ads against Republican Rep. Scott Taylor target his links to corporate polluters as well as his vote to repeal ObamaCare.

In California, an ad against Republican congressional candidate Diane Harkey focuses on her donations from oil and gas companies and her votes in favor of offshore drilling.

In Kansas, a commercial compares GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder’s opposition to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The advertisements’ general message is that a vote for these climate-skeptic candidates is a vote against other important issues.

“I think very few voters vote on any single issue. They look at candidates and they compare their choices with their own values,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“We don’t treat climate change as an outlier or special issue or something that is separate from the important things in people’s lives.”

Historically, the environment has ranked low and often dead last among issues of concern to voters.

A Pew Research poll from September found that just 63 percent of voters said the issue would be “very important” to them in the midterm elections. Only 38 percent of Republican voters said the same. In contrast, the Supreme Court, health care and the economy were in the top three.

Conservation groups are well aware of such polls, and it is sculpting their strategies as they seek to win over Republicans and independents.

“In Florida, the red tide and toxic algae ties into climate change and that’s bad for the tourism economy and bad for their community’s health,” said Pete Maysmith, LCV’s senior vice president for campaigns.

“In Maine we see [a focus on] climate change because it’s bad for the lobster industry, which is central to who the Mainers are. So when we start to see the impacts firsthand, that’s a path to this being more tangible in voters.”

Democratic candidates in purple states are using a similar tactic to sway voters.

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, just saw his state get pummeled by a near-historic hurricane last month. He tied fighting climate change to leading the “green economy” during a debate on Sunday.

“Florida should lead on solar energy; we’re known as the Sunshine State,” the Tallahassee mayor said.

Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who is running for governor in Colorado, has also highlighted renewables as an economic driver, arguing customers will save money on their electric bills and the increase will create tens of thousands of new jobs, in addition to reducing pollution and health-care costs.

“We need to make sure that we encourage investment in renewable energy by making sure we can recognize the savings for all of us,” Polis said at a debate this week.

Candidates embracing climate change and environmental issues in their platforms is a new development, conservation groups say, and signifies the issue may be going mainstream.

“There are candidates championing environmental issues all over the country — some even have their own expertise, like clean energy entrepreneur Mike Levin in California and Cindy Axne in Iowa, who helped make the state a leader in wind energy,” Maysmith said, referring to two Democratic candidates for the House.

“There are candidates campaigning on their belief in science, on keeping public lands in public hands, and on expanding renewable energy.”

That shift, in turn, is also changing how Republicans in some key battleground states are talking about climate change.

Reps. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who are both in toss-up races this fall, have been criticized by environmentalists of “greenwashing” their records by citing support for environmental issues, despite votes against climate change.

Walters voted in favor of bills to block Obama-era environmental regulations and co-sponsored the “Stopping EPA Overreach Act,” but recently signed on to a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) that said climate change was a “significant” factor in forest fires.

Roskam, whose Democratic challenger is a scientist, signed a resolution earlier this year that expressed that a carbon tax would be detrimental to the U.S. economy. But he recently went hiking with students from a college environmental group as one of his campaign events.

In the past year, both Walters and Roskam have joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus, which was formed in 2016. 

“We are seeing changes in the local level for local district races. Primarily you see more Republican candidates emphasizing clean energy entrepreneurship and growth of small renewable business, and I think that’s a harbinger of what’s to come,” Brune said.

“At some point the fever will break — and I think that repudiation of climate denialism will probably be led by business people and farmers who are often a core [Republican] constituency suffering from climate change.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Climate change Donald Trump Global warming Jared Polis Kevin Yoder Peter Roskam Scott Taylor

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