The Hangover: Mourning After the 2014 Election

Environmental concerns still not a decisive wedge issue — but there are some silver linings

There’s no sense in sugarcoating it: Yesterday’s election was mostly bad news for the environment and for the US environmental movement. Despite investing close to $100 million in key Senate and gubernatorial races, green groups were unable to elect most of their favored candidates. Politicians antagonistic to environmental protection and climate action will now run the US Senate. At the local level, fiercely fought anti-fracking measures split both ways. GMO food labeling measures failed (once again), though restrictions on GM crops narrowly passed on the Hawaiian island of Maui and in California’s Humboldt County. In perhaps the most significant silver lining of the night, little ol’ Berkeley, CA passed the nation’s first tax on sweetened beverages – overcoming a massive campaign by Big Soda and, in the process, offering some lessons on how to advance an environmental agenda at the ballot box.

Climate protest in front of Capitol building.Photo by Blaine O’NeillRepublicans have won control of the US Senate, though Democrats will still have the numbers to mount a filibuster.

Senate Goes Red. Maine and Florida Stick with Environmental Enemies.

The top headline, of course, is that Republicans have won control of the US Senate, though Democrats will still have the numbers to mount a filibuster. Climate science denier Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma will now chair the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, while Lisa Murkowski from the petro state of Alaska will chair the Energy and Commerce Committee. Republicans are already promising/threatening to pass a bill approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and you can expect a push to open up more oil and gas drilling on public lands. For the next two years, green groups will be forced to play defense on Capitol Hill.

During the last several months, environmental groups and Tom Steyer’s NextGen Super PAC picked four key Senate races in which they sought to make climate a wedge issue – and the results were mixed. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen held on in New Hampshire, and a rising climate hawk, Democrat Gary Peters, won in Michigan. But greens lost two other important races. In Colorado, conservationist scion Mark Udall lost to Cory Gardener, who ran in part on a platform celebrating the oil and gas boom in Colorado. EPA-hater and Agenda 21-conspiracy theorist Joni Ernst beat Bruce Braley in Iowa.

Environmentalists also suffered losses in important governor’s races. Steyer’s NextGen put a huge amount of energy into taking out Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who has waffled about whether humans are changing the climate. NextGen thought it could use Floridians’ worries about sea level rise and extreme weather to build a climate case against Scott. It didn’t quite work; Scott beat out Charlie Crist. In Maine, voters re-elected Governor Paul LePage, whose first act in office during his initial term had been to roll back state environmental laws.

So – despite spending close to $100 million on behalf of environmental champions (at least $67 million from NextGen, plus another $25 million from the League of Conservation Voters, with more spending still waiting to be disclosed) – environmentalists came up with a 2-4 record in the major races in which they picked a fight and spent heavily.

What happened? It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that the outcome reveals an electorate that’s unsympathetic to environmental issues. As Politico’s Andrew Restuccia points out, a lot of factors were in play: “The reasons for the outcome were many, including a GOP-friendly electoral map, voters’ unhappiness with President Barack Obama and the economy, and polls showing that the public tends to rank climate change as a low priority.”

Still, it’s obvious that environmental groups failed to make climate a key wedge issue. Yes, voters do care about the environment – climate change in particular, which nearly half of voters say needs more federal action, according to an election eve poll by the Huffington Post. And even as Governor Rick Scott held on in Florida, 75 percent of voters there approved a measure that will raise billions of dollars for conservation programs over the next 20 years.

But there is no evidence that most voters care enough about the environment for it to be a make or break issue. That is – at least right now.

Last week NextGen released a voter survey showing that younger voters – the intensely coveted Millennial cohort – overwhelmingly acknowledge that climate change is real, are dismissive of climate science deniers, and want to see federal action to stem greenhouse gas emissions. As veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said in a conference call explaining the poll results: “This issue matters for Millennials. It is defining issue, and leaders that deny or decline to act will pay a serious price for this politically.” Someday, Greenberg should have added.

“This [climate change] is an emerging issue,” Tom Steyer’s political consiglieri, Chris Lehane, said during the call. That sounds about right to me. Climate change might be an emerging issue – but it’s not yet a deciding one.

A Fracking Riddle

anti-fracking coaster Photo by Michael LezaDenton, TX, where some say hydraulic fracturing was invented, approved an anti-fracking

The mixed results in local ballot measures over fracking only muddle the tea leaves further. In what has to be one of the biggest political riddles of this election, voters in liberal Santa Barbara County, California rejected an initiative to restrict hydraulic fracturing, while in Denton, Texas voters approved an anti-fracking measure.

“Denton, Texas, is where hydraulic fracturing was invented,” Bruce Baizel, a campaigner with the group Earthworks said in a statement. “It’s home to more than 275 fracked wells. It’s a place that knows fracking perhaps better than any other. If this place in the heart of the oil and gas industry can’t live with fracking, then who can? The answer, at present, is ‘no one.’”

It’s a good line – if only it were true. Voters in some places are quite willing to live with fracking, or, at the very least, not yet ready to put a moratorium on it. In Santa Barbara, the vote over Measure P wasn’t even close; the anti-fracking proposal went down in flames, 62 to 37 percent. In Ohio, the cities of Kent, Gates Mills, and Youngstown also voted down fracking bans.

But a fracking ban did pass in Athens, Ohio, as well as two other California counties – Mendocino and San Benito. All together, it’s a split verdict: four measures passed, while four failed to gain a majority.

It’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions from these results, as each of the races was characterized by local idiosyncrasies. For example, the result in Santa Barbara County was no doubt influenced by the $7.7 million the oil and gas industry poured into the race. And it’s easy to vote against fracking in Mendocino County, since there is virtually no oil and gas industry there. Even though I’m leery of the activist hyperbole, the lopsided Denton vote (anti-fracking forces won 59 to 41 percent) is clearly a big deal. It reveals that many people – especially those who have experienced fracking firsthand – are skeptical about the promises of the fossil fuel boom. It shows that environmentalists can win when they highlight local quality of life and public health issues.

GMOs – A (Near) Total Fail

GMO Information Table in Medford, Oregon Photo by Lynne LoweA GMO information table in Medford, OR, where a labelling intitiative failed yesterday.
GM food opponents are probably better off doing what they’ve done in Connecticut and
Vermont and pushing labeling through the state legislatures

Looking at the election returns from Colorado and Oregon, I’m having a hard time not thinking of the old (and probably apocryphal) Einstein quote about how insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Once again, GM skeptics poured time, money, and grassroots energy into state ballot initiatives calling for the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Once again, Big Food and Big Ag dumped millions of dollars into the campaign – $15 million in Colorado, and $18 million in Oregon, making it the most expensive ballot initiative in that state’s history. And once again voters rejected the idea. While the vote was narrow in Oregon – a scant 51 percent of voters came out against the GM labeling initiative – in Colorado it was a blowout as just 34 percent of voters supported GM labeling.

After similar losses in California in 2012 and Washington last year, GMO opponents are now 0-4. Is there any doubt that it’s time to scrap this strategy? If GM opponents really want to do more than spark a political conversation and hope to actually influence public policy, they are probably better off doing what they’ve done in Connecticut and Vermont and pushing labeling through the state legislatures. At this point, another GMO ballot initiative would be a distraction of grassroots energy that could be better used elsewhere.

GM skeptics, however, can boast of a silver lining. Voters in Maui County, Hawaii narrowly approved a temporary ban on cultivating GM crops on the island. The measure passed despite at least $8 million in campaign spending by Monsanto and other agribusiness interests. A similar measure passed in Humboldt country by a much larger 59.43 percent vote.

Progressive Enclave Passes Nation’s First Soda Tax

Speaking of silver linings: Sustainable food and public health advocates scored an important win last night as voters in Berkeley, California overwhelmingly supported the nation’s first tax on sweetened beverages in a lopsided 75 to 25 percent vote. (A similar measure in San Francisco got 55 percent of the vote, but failed to hit the two-thirds majority required for approval.)

Canvassing for Berkeley vs. Big Soda Photo by Sarah MittermaierBerkeley soda tax proponents’ prioritized using the money to pay for on-the-ground
canvassers and that helped politicize a whole new group of young people.

I don’t want to make too much of this. Berkeley is, after all, a famously progressive town, “an anomaly,” as a representative of the American Beverage Association said this morning on Bay Area public radio. But I think that there are some important lessons that environmental politicos can take from the success of Measure D. Above all, this: With a modest amount of money and a good dose of perseverance, environmentalists can overcome massive campaign spending by corporate interests if they wage asymmetrical warfare with paid field staff.

Big Soda might have been waving off the importance of the Berkeley vote this morning, but that’s clearly not how the industry felt throughout the campaign season, as it poured an estimated $2.5 million into a city of just 115,000 residents. (In the end, the beverage companies will likely have spent about $500 for each of the NO votes it garnered.) The YES campaign overcame this offensive through hard work, sure – as well as strategic use of its limited funds.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $370,000 to the YES on D campaign, much of it in the last month of the race. The Measure D campaign staff knew they couldn’t match Big Soda in the advertising war (not with the Beverage Association buying out entire train stations), so it prioritized using the money to pay for on-the-ground canvassers. The switch in the campaign’s energy was palpable. For months, the Measure D headquarters (which are located right around the corner from the Earth Island Journal offices) were pretty sleepy. Then, in the last two weeks, the place exploded with activity. Part of this was the usual, last-minute GOTV push of any electoral campaign. And part of it had to do with the fact that the campaign was hiring people – mostly Berkeley High and UC Berkeley students – to hit the streets.

“It definitely allowed us to reach more people,” Kad Smith, the 23-year-old director of the campaign’s youth outreach effort, told me last night, speaking of the Bloomberg donation. Smith chose his words carefully, evidently worried about making it seem like the campaign’s paid field staff were just in it for the money. But he did acknowledge that being able to pay field organizers helped politicize a whole new group of young people. “The issue itself got them through our door, but the monetary stimulus brought them to our door.”

I don’t need to second-guess Chris Lehane, who has been working at the highest level of American politics for years; Wednesday morning quarterbacking is of little value. But it’s useful to think about what it would look like if the Berkeley strategy of paying rank-and-file field workers were replicated at the national level.

Big state and federal political campaigns usually spend most of their money on expensive TV, radio and web advertising. There are paid field staff, to be sure, but mostly they are at what you could call the lieutenant level, tasked with enlisting and then coordinating volunteer workers. Imagine how different it would look if, instead of asking people to volunteer to go door-to-door looking for climate votes, you just paid them.

That’s the scenario a veteran environmental political operative (who spoke off the record) sketched out for me last week. What if NextGen decided that in 2015 and 2016 it was going to recruit and then pay (at, say, minimum wage) 5,000 young climate activists to be a door-to-door army? Instead of relying on people to give their blood, sweat, and tears for free, pay them something to leverage their enthusiasm even further. That is: really, truly invest in the grassroots.

In the lead up to the election, the folks at NextGen and LCV insisted that this year’s offensive wasn’t just about 2014; it was about playing the long game and beginning to frame the climate discussion for 2016. I’m glad to hear it, especially given yesterday’s results. To win that long game, it seems to me, will require recognizing that the environmental movement is never going to outspend the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and win the advertising battle. Greens will have to win on the ground, precinct by precinct, voter by voter. And if that’s the case, then that’s where limited campaign funds should be prioritized.

Such a task will take time, as I was reminded last night by Joy Moore, a longtime environmental and health activist in Berkeley who regaled me with memories of doing cooking demonstrations at Juneteenth celebrations 15 years ago. “It’s not just these months that won the campaign,” she said. “It’s a lifetime of work.”

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