Today, the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history is wrapping up. Among the big spenders were environmental groups, who shelled out an unprecedented $85 million to put climate change at the top of the political agenda. Surveys indicate that, at least in the short run, they failed.
The issue that has resonated most in this year's campaigns has been President Barack Obama's growing unpopularity. Beyond that, a Pew Research Center poll showed that among a list of the 11 issues that matter most to voters, climate change and other environmental issues came in eighth place.
As The New Republic reports:
"It is very difficult to find an issue that voters place lower on the list than climate change," GOP pollster Whit Ayres told the New York Times. "Most voters care about jobs, economic growth, health care and immigration."
Green groups will also likely fail to elect candidates sympathetic toward climate issues. Half of green groups' $85 million has gone to Senate races (in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Alaska, North Carolina, and Michigan) where Democrats might lose. If Senator Mitch McConnell's becomes Majority Leader, one of his top priorities is environmental deregulation. So it's easy to call environmentalists' strategy this year a total failure.
But the calculus is not that simple….the unprecedented spending has kept Republicans off-balance. And it has shown that environmentalists are adapting their message for an electorate that is growing.
That same theme is being echoed by other Democratic donors and strategists. Hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer donated $50 million of his own money through his super PAC NextGen Climate Action. Chris Lehane — the badass Democratic operative who developed NextGen's strategy — tells the San Francisco Chronicle that no matter which party ends up with control of the Senate, there is ample evidence that Steyer's effort has succeeded. Steyer's goal, he said, is "to change the politics of climate." Drawing a parallel with same-sex marriage, Lehane said that once Republicans "start to recognize that it's an issue that's problematic for them, that's when you begin to get the whole paradigm to flip."
The tipping point on same-sex marriage arrived "when Republicans began to stop using the issue themselves offensively and had to start playing defense," Lehane said, "and that's exactly what's happening on climate in this cycle."
Lehane pointed to Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst, a Tea Party-backed Republican locked in a tight campaign against Democrat Bruce Braley. Ernst wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and has adopted the now-common mantra among Republicans that she "is no scientist" regarding climate change. But when pushed in debates, Ernst was on the defensive, telling voters, "I drive a hybrid car, and my family recycles everything."
In Colorado, Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner refused in a debate with incumbent Democrat Mark Udall to say whether he believes humans are changing the climate. But Gardner released an ad [below] showing him posing in front of a windmill and saying, "So what's a Republican like me doing at a wind farm? Supporting the next generation, that's what." The ad describes Gardner as "a new kind of Republican." That race is rated a toss-up.
In Florida, after NextGen began spending money to defeat conservative Republican Gov. Rick Scott in his re-election race against Charlie Crist, a former Republican turned independent who supports action on climate change, Scott announced a "Let's keep Florida beautiful" tour and began touting his efforts to combat sea level rise in Miami and protect coral reefs.
GOP strategists say that this interpretation of the election is, at best, political spin to claim victory in the face of a very expensive defeat or, at worse, pitiful self-delusion.
"Here's how bad it is for the environmental left right now," says Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group chaired by David Koch. "The majority of the ads that mention climate or energy are pro-energy, pro-Keystone pipeline. ... Who would ever have thought that an oil pipeline stretching across the midsection of the country would be a winning political issue, not for the environmental left but for conservatives? But it is."
Likewise, Republican strategist Josh Penry told Reuters, "Climate change is like an afterthought in the wider message, which is a tacit admission that on its own it doesn't move the dial."
Indeed, this year's environmentalist ads have adopted a radically different approach from previous campaigns. In the Colorado Senate race, for instance, an ad attacked Garner (below) for his failure to acknowledge climate change, and then slammed his stance on several social issues, including opposition to marriage equality and support for efforts to ban birth control.
It's part of a strategy to portray GOP candidates as being on the political fringe. "Climate fits very neatly in a series of issues that define the Republican Party as extreme and out of touch, so in Colorado we're looking to frame Cory Gardner as an extremist," says Lehane.
As such, some of the ads haven't mentioned climate change at all, such as this one that went after Iowa's Ernst pledge not to raise taxes, even on corporate tax breaks.
As The New Republic sees it:
This indirect approach from green groups was smart because it helps environmentalists broaden their reach beyond a limited cross-section of voters, who don't see environmental issues as having to do with saving money on their energy bills or how much they spend on gas.
NextGen insists it hasn't veered from its original mission with these more varied ads. "It is often the case that when a candidate is on the wrong side of science, they are likely on the wrong side of a number of issues critical to voters, and we will continue to draw this contrast between the candidates," spokesperson Suzanne Henkels said in an e-mail.
While the majority of the electorate is not primarily concerned with the environment, NextGen and similar groups may have appealed to an important demographic with their strategies this cycle. Women, African Americans, and Latinos tend to care more about the environment—a demographic that The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication calls the Rising American electorate. The project also found that Hispanics and African Americans prefer candidates who call for climate action. The economy and security may still come first for voters, but if NextGen can mobilize turnout among these demographics, they may see the benefits down the line.
Those down-the-line benefits will be crucial for environmentalists, with Republicans poised to take control of the Senate. As Slate reports:
A Republican-led Senate would seriously damage the nation's effort to combat climate change. Efforts to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases would likely be blocked by filibustering Democrats or a vetoing president, but such an attempt would put environmentalists on the defensive at a time when affirmative measures are needed. The GOP could also cut the agency's funding and generally make things difficult by hauling EPA officials in front of Congress on a regular basis. As the Brookings Institution's managing director William Antholis noted recently, every minor move could have major global repercussions at next year's UN climate convention in Paris, where the Obama administration will try to convince international leaders that the United States is finally getting serious about combating man-made climate change.
Lehane has said that NextGen picked its Senate targets not just for this year, but with an eye to the presidential race in 2016, to raise the profile of climate and clean energy in states that hold the keys to the White House. In two years, environmentalists will find out if that strategy paid off.