Election 2014: A Guide to the Biggest Environmental Battles

Green PACs amping up spending; more GMO initiatives; soda tax fights

Slogan-stacked yard signs proliferating like swarms of locusts. Leaflets cluttering the mailbox and the front porch. Histrionic ads filling up just about every spare minute of cable TV.

All of this can mean just one thing – election season.

Polling Placephoto by Theron Trowbridge/FlickrThe US Senate contests aren’t the only races to watch.With continued Washington gridlock certain, state and local governments represent the best opportunities for meaningful climate action in the short-term.

The national media is mostly obsessed with the fate of the US Senate. Thanks to the cynical and baldly partisan congressional redistricting that has occurred during the last four years, many House incumbents will glide to re-election, even though Congress’ favorability rating is polling at an all-time low. The main drama, then, centers on whether the Democrats will be able to maintain control of the Senate.

If you care about the environment – and, especially, maintaining a more-or-less stable climate – then you should care about what happens to the Senate. Here’s how Daniel J. Weiss, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, described the situation to me in a conversation last week: “[Current Minority Leader] Senator Mitch McConnell [a Republican from Kentucky], who would become Senate Majority Leader, has already promised to use the government spending process to block President Obama’s clean power plan, even if it means the government shuts down. So Mitch McConnell has already painted a bull’s-eye on President Obama’s power plan.”

To keep a more climate-action-friendly majority in power in the Senate, environmental political action committees are dramatically boosting their spending compared to previous mid-term election years. The League of Conservation Voters expects to spend $25 million promoting pro-environment candidates – fives times as much as it spent in 2010. Green billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee has already thrown down even more than that – $30.5 million according to its last filing with the Federal Election Committee – and will undoubtedly exceed that hefty figure. Steyer has said he will spend as much as $100 million this political season to keep climate change deniers out of office.

But the US Senate contests aren’t the only races to watch. With continued Washington gridlock certain even if Democrats manage to hold onto the upper chamber, state and local governments represent the best opportunities for meaningful climate action in the short-term. So environmental political action committees are also pouring resources into several key gubernatorial races and statehouse battles. And citizens will be voting on important state ballot measures involving genetically modified food labeling and soda taxes.

Here’s guide to some of the races – federal, state, and local – that environmentally minded voters should be watching during the next month.

US Senate Races

An interesting thing has happened as Democrats and Republicans struggle for control of the US Senate: Climate and energy have emerged as central issues in several key races. According to The Cook Political Report (a must-read for political junkies), TV spots about energy or the environment are the fourth most common issue ads being produced by campaigns and PACs this political season, beating out issue ads on taxes, government spending, or veterans’ affairs. This is due, in part, to greens’ efforts to make climate change and energy a classic wedge issue – something that can peel off independents and swing voters who might otherwise vote for a Republican candidate.

“People have already seen the impacts of climate change in their communities, and from all of the polling that we have seen, this is an important issue that people want their leaders to take action on,” Bobby Whithorne, a spokesperson for Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, told me. “We believe we can make this a wedge issue in the midterms. This is a top tier issue that voters care about.”

NextGen and other leading environmental PACS are skipping races where there is no clear climate champion – the heated races in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas are obvious examples – and instead are concentrating on Senate battles in which there is either a flagrant climate science denier and/or a progressive candidate with a strong environmental record. “We are focusing on races where there is a clear champion on climate change and where the race is very close,” Weiss said.

That list includes:

Colorado: Many Colorado environmentalists were dismayed when Senator Mark Udall – a Democrat and a member of the legendary conservationist clan of the Udalls – worked behind the scenes to remove from the state ballot an initiative to restrict fracking. Nevertheless, Udall is clearly enviros’ man in this nail-biter. Udall has a 97 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. His opponent, Republican US Representative Cory Gardner, has a 9 percent lifetime score from LCV. The Centennial State is at something of an energy-and-climate crossroads. It’s a major gas producer thanks to the fracking boom and, at the same time, has seen more than its fair share of climate-related destruction – from the wholesale loss of lodgepole pines due to bark beetle infestation, to horrible fires, to record-breaking floods last year that forced the evacuations of more than 10,000 people from their homes. Energy production and climate change were hot topics at a Gardner-Udall debate that occurred earlier this week. Udall pressed his opponent to acknowledge that climate change is real, forcing Gardener to admit, “There is no doubt that pollution contributes to the climate changing around us.”   

Iowa: With longtime progressive champion Senator Tom Harkin retiring this year, his seat is up grabs, making Iowa one of the closest Senate races in the country. Democrat Representative Bruce Braley is running against Joni Ernst, a Republican member of the Iowa Senate who got a big boost with her “hog castration” TV ad that went viral this spring. While much of the race has consisted of Braley and Ernst trying to outdo each other on their down-home-and-farm-raised credentials, climate has become a wedge issue as Braley tries to capitalize on Ernst’s science-denial stance. At the candidates’ first debate, the moderators asked about climate change, and Ernst, after proclaiming that her family drives a hybrid car and recycles, offered the now-customary GOP dodge: “I don’t know the science behind climate change. I can’t say one way or another what is the direct impact, whether it’s man-made or not. I’ve heard arguments from both sides.” The race is too close to call, and enviros are doing their best to swing it in Braley’s direction. “We have invested nearly $1.5 million on television ads as part of a coalition effort in Iowa to defeat Joni Ernst and her plan to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency,” Melissa Williams, the Sierra Club’s political director, wrote to me in an email.

One of the campaign ads that NextGen is running in Iowa.

New Hampshire: Having lost his briefly held Senate seat in Massachusetts to populist stalwart Elizabeth Warren, Republican Scott Brown has pulled the ultimate carpetbagger move and is now running for office in next door New Hampshire. Brown’s stance on climate change has been, let’s say, inconclusive. When he was running for office in more liberal Massachusetts just two years ago, Brown said: “I absolutely believe that climate change is real and I believe there’s a combination between man-made and natural.” But when asked during an August GOP primary debate whether he believed that “the theory of man-made climate change has been scientifically proven,” Brown replied: “Uh, no.” Sticking to their playbook, the enviro PACs have made Brown’s confusion about basic climate science a wedge issue. In August, LCV distributed a poll showing that 48 percent of New Hampshire voters say they’re less likely to vote for a climate change denier this fall, versus 21 percent who say they’re more likely to do so. And NextGen has mocked Brown’s environmental views by having its campaigners drive around the state in a brown pickup truck (modeled on Brown’s iconic campaign mobile) stacked with barrels marked “oil.” The steady fire might be working. Democratic incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen has a narrow lead over Brown, according to the most recent polling.

Michigan: “We’re also targeting the Michigan senate race, where Gary Peters has made the environment a big issue while we’ve seen climate science denial from his opponent,” LCV’s Weiss said. The opponent in this case is Terri Lynn Land, who has been nothing if not cagey about her stance on climate change. When her campaign was asked by The Washington Post whether she believed that humans are fueling global warming, Land’s staff replied:

“Terri believes that there should be a healthy and educated debate on the impact of human activity on our environment, but she does not agree with radical liberals like Tom Steyer and Congressman Peters on the extent of the effect of human behavior on our climate. While Terri continues to focus on jobs, the economy and protecting the Great Lakes, Congressman Peters has instead focused his energy on selling out Michigan workers and adopting the radical agenda of California billionaire Tom Steyer.”

The repeated references to Steyer aren’t surprising, given that the Senate race in Michigan has become a proxy battle of sorts between the California billionaire and the carbon barons the Koch Brothers. And it looks like a battle that Steyer is winning on Representative Peters’ behalf. Yesterday the AP reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is pulling $1 million in ads it had slated for late October, a signal that the NRSC doesn’t think Land can win.

Also – Alaska, North Carolina, and Maine: In addition to their own independent expenditures via political action committees, green groups are funneling progressive donor money directly to candidates. The NRDC Action Fund is defending what you could call “light green” Senators such as Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), all of whom are on the record supporting President Obama’s draft power plant rules. Heather Taylor-Miesle, Director of the NRDC Action Fund, told me that the group’s “Give Green” program (a joint initiative with LCV) has raised $5 million for climate action candidates – “double what was raised in 2012.”

Gubernatorial Races

While the green PACs seek to defend the slim majority of environmental allies in the US Senate, they’re going on the offensive at the state level by targeting governors with lackluster environmental records or who are outright climate science deniers. This is an especially smart move since state governments have the ability to make a real dent in greenhouse gas emissions. In at least three states – Florida, Maine, and Pennsylvania – environmental PACs have kept climate and the environment at the center of the race.

Florida: If Republican Governor Rick Scott thought he could get away with the I’m-not-a-scientist dodge on global climate change, he bet wrong. In August, the governor reluctantly agreed to meet with five Florida climatologists for a 30-minute tutorial on global warming, which one of the tutors, marine science prof David Hastings, called “not hard science.” Scott scurried out of the briefing without talking to the press, which covered it anyway, likely to the governor’s chagrin. Since then, scientists there have pressed the issue by asking Governor Scott to attend an upcoming “Climate Science and Solutions Summit.” NextGen has been especially aggressive in Florida. It has helped fund 21 field offices in the state, according to Whithorne, and has toured the state with an ark designed to draw attention to the state’s vulnerability to rising sea levels. The Florida race is a good example of how environmentalists have sought to tailor their message to local conditions. “Rick Scott is a climate denier who refuses to accept basic scientific fact, and it’s putting Florida’s economy and residents in harm’s way,” Whithorne told me. “Communities there are threatened by sea level rise. It could spur rising insurance rates. We are making this a local issue.” NextGen has already spent $6 million in the Sunshine State – a figure that will undoubtedly grow in the next month.

One of the campaign ads targeting Governor Rick Scott that NextGen is running in Florida.

Maine: Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, likes to think of himself as a maverick. But he’s been a little too maverick-y on climate. First he proclaimed that climate change might be good for Maine, what with the opening of the Northeast Passage and all. Then he vetoed a popular, bi-partisan bill to boost the solar industry in Maine. Now, environmental PACs are set on removing him from office. There’s just one problem – the campaign for the governor’s seat is a three-way race among LePage, Independent Eliot Cutler, and Democratic Representative Mike Michaud. LCV’s Weiss said: “The big challenge is that the pro-environment candidate, Mike Michaud, is running against another pro-environment candidate, and if they split the vote, then LePage wins with 40 percent.” This is the kind of race whose outcome might still be in doubt the day after the polls close.

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, has landed himself on LCV’s “Dirty Dozen in the States” list due to his enthusiastic support for the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania is, of course, ground zero for the fracking boom, and Corbett has done whatever he can to assist the gas companies. He opened the state parks and forest to drilling companies, reduced the budget for the Department of Environmental Protection, and offered huge incentives to energy giants including Royal Dutch Shell to locate in the Keystone State, calling such tax breaks a necessary evil. This is a race where environmentalists can smell blood; the latest poll show Democratic challenger Tom Wolf leading the incumbent by 17 points.

Statehouse Races: Oregon & Washington

Keep in mind that the NextGen Climate Action Committee is less than four years old. It was sparked in 2010, when Tom Steyer teamed up with former Secretary of State George Schultz to defeat California’s Proposition 23, a ballot initiative designed to undercut California’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction legislation. In its short history, the PAC has shown a keen eye for local politics. For example, last year Steyer’s resources helped influence the outcome of the Whatcom, County (Washington State) supervisors race. Whatcom County? you may be wondering. Yes, Whatcom County … because a major coal export terminal is planned for the area.

NextGen and others environmental PACs are keeping their eye on less glamorous races by making investments in several key campaigns that could determine the balance of power in the Oregon and Washington Statehouses. Both of these Pacific Northwest states have progressive and environment-friendly governors. But their climate agendas have been frustrated by the legislatures. Green groups want to change that by locking in environmentally minded majorities in Salem and Olympia. NextGen has put at least $1 million into its Washington PAC.

Weiss from the League of Conservation Voters said: “Those state legislatures are only a couple of votes away from having a pro-climate action majority. Currently they do not. If we can win a couple of more seats, then Governor Jay Inslee [Democrat from Washington] and Governor [John] Kitzhaber [Democrat from Oregon] can pass pro- climate action legislation. In Oregon in the last legislative session, a proposal for a low carbon fuel standard, to reduce carbon pollution, failed on a tie vote. If we can pick up two more seats, we can win that.” 

State Ballot Initiatives

Voters will be deciding on a raft of initiatives on November 4 that have to do with environmental issues.

California voters will be deciding the fate of a $7.1 billion bond measure that would, if passed, pay for improvements to the state’s drought-strained water infrastructure. Environmental groups are split on the measure, with some saying the bond is just another water giveaway to Big Ag.

New Jersey residents will vote on Public Question 2, which will direct 6 percent of corporate tax revenues to open space preservation.

In Michigan, voters will consider Proposal 1, which organizers with a group called Keep Michigan Wolves Protected put on the ballot to overturn the state’s game rules allowing for wolf hunting. But because the measure has since been superseded by legislative action, this is mostly a symbolic measure – and, to make the issue more complicated, wolf supporters are urging a “No” vote to reject the wolf-hunting law. Voters in Maine will have the opportunity, via Question 1, to put restrictions on some bear hunting practices.

Up in Alaska, voters will be deciding Measure 4, the Bristol Bay Mining Ban. In July the US EPA proposed a set of mining restrictions that would all but prohibit mining in the bay, one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world. But Measure 4 is still an important race since it will force Alaskans to make a symbolic decision about whether they want to continue with their extraction-based economy or pursue enterprises, like fishing, that can be more sustainable.

By far the most closely watched – and fiercely contested – state initiatives are the ballot measures in Colorado (Proposition 105) and Oregon (Measure 92) to mandate the labeling of food products containing genetically modified ingredients. In 2012 voters in California rejected a GM labeling initiative, as did voters in Washington last year, and the campaigns in Colorado and Oregon feel like déjà vu all over again. Once more, sustainable food activists are seeking to tap into the overwhelming – and bi-partisan – numbers of people who say they want more transparency in the food system. And once more the major food processors are dumping huge amounts of cash into the final weeks of the campaign. In Colorado, the No on 105 Coalition has raised $9.7 million to defeat the GM labeling initiative. At least measured by dollars (how else to gauge campaign success in the world’s oldest democracy?) the fight in Oregon is somewhat more evenly matched. There, labeling opponents have raised about $5.7 million, while labeling proponents have collected about $3.7 million, according to the most recent figures.

It’s hard to know what to make of the GM food opponents’ repeated strategy. Either it’s an example of impressive persistence (“if at first you don’t succeed, try again”) or a case of bullheaded obstinacy (“the definition of insanity is going the same thing and expecting a different outcome”). Maybe, as Josh Harkinson suggests at Mother Jones, this will be the year that GM food labeling hits a tipping point. We’ll find out on November 4.

Local Initiatives

There are, no doubt, dozens of important local initiatives on zoning, transportation funding, and clean energy at the city and county level that voters will be deciding on. At the risk of parochialism, it seems to me that the two most important local measures are in the San Francisco Bay Area, where citizens will be voting on whether to place new taxes on sugary beverages.

In San Francisco, Proposition E would put a two-cents-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened (or high fructose corn syrup sweetened) drinks. It would raise about $31 million a year for children’s nutrition and physical fitness programs. Across the Bay, in Berkeley, the similarly constructed Measure D would put a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages. The revenue raised by the tax would go to the city’s general fund, with the expectation that the money will be used for school nutrition programs.

yes on d campaign poster If Berkeley can’t pass a soda tax, who can?

Both measures are being pushed by public health groups that are alarmed at the high rates of childhood obesity and attendant diseases. Not surprisingly, the large food and beverage brands are freaking out. The American Beverage Association has spent $7.7 million to defeat San Francisco’s Prop E, the second-highest amount ever spent to defeat a proposition in the city, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. The ABA is also spending big in Berkeley.

The San Francisco and Berkeley measures can seem awfully, well, NoCal-ish. But these local initiatives will have a national impact on future efforts to reform the marketplace for sodas. Nathanael Johnson of Grist pretty much summed it up when he wrote last week: “If Berkeley can’t pass a soda tax, who can?”

… You may not live in one of the contested battleground states, or be voting on a much watched ballot initiative, but it doesn’t matter. Register to vote while there’s still time. And on November 4 remember: Vote early and often – the environment is counting on it.

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