What Do Green Groups Want More: Saving the Planet or Saving the Senate?

Environmental political activists need to decide whether Democratic control or their principles matters more in 2014.

Faith Meckley. She's 18 and from Macedon, New York
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 14, 2013, 4 a.m.

These are heady times to be an en­vir­on­ment­al­ist in polit­ics. The most in­flu­en­tial green lob­by­ing group, the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters, poured a whop­ping $14 mil­lion in­to con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns in 2012 and de­feated more than 90 per­cent of its top tar­gets. Green money emerged as a pivotal force in Terry McAul­iffe’s nar­row gubernat­ori­al vic­tory in Vir­gin­ia after bil­lion­aire en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ist Tom Stey­er spent $8 mil­lion on the Demo­crat’s be­half. To­geth­er, Stey­er and LCV dumped mil­lions in­to the Mas­sachu­setts spe­cial Sen­ate elec­tion, which then-Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ed­ward Mar­key won com­fort­ably. “The Polit­ics of En­ergy & Cli­mate Change Have Changed,” head­lined a news re­lease from the con­ser­va­tion league this month. “Coal is no longer a win­ning wedge is­sue, and deny­ing the prob­lem of cli­mate change “¦ is a much great­er polit­ic­al li­ab­il­ity.”

In­deed, all this suc­cess has em­boldened the move­ment. But as the 2014 midterm-elec­tion year ap­proaches, green polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives will face a test that pits their prin­ciples against their long-stand­ing repu­ta­tion for prag­mat­ism. Con­trol of the Sen­ate is in play, and the Demo­crats’ mar­gin is held by sen­at­ors rep­res­ent­ing con­ser­vat­ive, en­ergy-pro­du­cing states. Nav­ig­at­ing sev­er­al tar­geted Demo­crats’ nu­anced re­cords on these is­sues is like wad­ing through an oil slick.

Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana has one of the low­est life­time scores from LCV among Sen­ate Demo­crats. In Ken­tucky, Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes has po­si­tioned her­self as a stal­wart sup­port­er of coal and a reg­u­lar crit­ic of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, even as she’s run­ning against one of the green move­ment’s biggest en­emies: Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. In 2011, Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or was one of only three Sen­ate Demo­crats to sup­port an amend­ment offered by Mc­Con­nell that weakened EPA’s abil­ity to reg­u­late green­house gases.

Those real­it­ies have forced en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to de­bate wheth­er they can get be­hind Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors who have taken tough votes on many of their pri­or­it­ies but will as­suredly bolt on sev­er­al oth­er high-pro­file is­sues. Mark Be­gich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, for ex­ample, both voted to up­hold EPA’s au­thor­ity to main­tain air-pol­lu­tion stand­ards and backed in­creased fund­ing for re­new­able en­ergy. But they’re also on board with the long-delayed Key­stone XL pipeline, which en­vir­on­ment­al­ists vig­or­ously op­pose.

Mean­while, red-state Sen­ate Demo­crats could use fin­an­cial sup­port from out­side groups, but not at the ex­pense of un­der­min­ing their care­fully craf­ted mes­sage that they’re pro-en­ergy — and not be­hold­en to the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic agenda.

“We haven’t made de­cisions for 2014,” said LCV spokes­man Jeff Gohringer. “What we’ve seen this year is that the mo­mentum from last cycle is real, but our is­sues are play­ing well across the coun­try, in­clud­ing some red states.”¦ We still see a path to de­fend the fire­wall in the Sen­ate.”

In a sign of the hard choices fa­cing the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment in 2014, the group didn’t go after any Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans on the bal­lot next year in its first ad blitz of the year. In­stead, it spent more than $2 mil­lion in Au­gust at­tack­ing Wis­con­sin’s Ron John­son, who’s not up for reelec­tion un­til 2016, along with sev­er­al vul­ner­able House Re­pub­lic­ans in swing dis­tricts. The only Sen­ate can­did­ate it has en­dorsed is Bri­an Schatz in Hawaii, who faces no ser­i­ous GOP op­pos­i­tion.

By far the biggest de­cision for the LCV is wheth­er to get in­volved in the Ken­tucky Sen­ate race against one of its archenemies, Mc­Con­nell. The prob­lem: The Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, Lun­der­gan Grimes, is un­likely to be pub­licly sup­port­ive of any ele­ment of the green agenda — a polit­ic­al ne­ces­sity in an en­ergy-rich, coal-pro­du­cing state. Get­ting be­hind her cam­paign would vi­ol­ate one of the group’s max­ims dur­ing the 2012 elec­tions: Only get in­volved for true en­vir­on­ment­al cham­pi­ons, not just to re­place a pro-drilling Re­pub­lic­an with a squish­i­er Demo­crat.

Sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic strategists pos­ited that LCV may end up mak­ing Mc­Con­nell one of its top tar­gets, without openly ad­voc­at­ing for Grimes. The group fol­lowed a sim­il­ar strategy in 2008, when it op­posed Ted Stevens in Alaska without back­ing Be­gich, his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent. Be­gich won, and has be­come a sur­pris­ing ally on nu­mer­ous en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues.

“For a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate [in Ken­tucky], it is really a prob­lem. They have to give dif­fer­ent speeches de­pend­ing on their audi­ences. You have to say something dif­fer­ent in San Fran­cisco than in Lex­ing­ton,” said Billy Piper, former chief of staff to Mc­Con­nell. “In Ken­tucky, people see things dif­fer­ently and think it’s pos­sible to be pro-en­vir­on­ment and pro-coal.”

League of­fi­cials point to their own polling in 11 battle­ground Sen­ate races show­ing wide­spread sup­port for new EPA reg­u­la­tions reg­u­lat­ing car­bon pol­lu­tion, with ma­jor­it­ies wor­ried about the im­pact of cli­mate change. “At­tack­ing the EPA is a los­ing mes­sage,” Gohringer said.

But when it comes to en­ergy is­sues, the pre­cise fram­ing of ques­tions can eli­cit dra­mat­ic­ally dif­fer­ent res­ults. Most voters in­stinct­ively want to fight pol­lu­tion, but not if it comes at the ex­pense of en­ergy-sec­tor job growth or if it means high­er en­ergy bills. Many de­feated Rust Belt Demo­crats still blame the cap-and-trade vote in 2009 as play­ing an un­her­al­ded role in the party’s his­tor­ic de­feat.

In­deed, un­like many ideo­lo­gic­al groups on the right, the green lobby has been prag­mat­ic, oc­ca­sion­ally us­ing non-en­vir­on­ment­al themes in ads to hit of­fend­ing Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers. One ad last year against George Al­len, Vir­gin­ia’s GOP Sen­ate can­did­ate, per­func­tor­ily ref­er­enced his sup­port from “big oil” but fo­cused more on blast­ing his eco­nom­ic pro­pos­als.

With Pres­id­ent Obama’s chaot­ic health care rol­lout pan­ick­ing many vul­ner­able Sen­ate Demo­crats, con­trol of the Sen­ate is look­ing like it will be with­in the GOP’s grasp in 2014. But des­pite their bullish­ness about the pub­lic’s re­ceptiv­ity to their is­sues, en­vir­on­ment­al groups could end up side­lined from next year’s biggest polit­ic­al battle­ground. “They’re go­ing to as­sess where they get value for their money,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster John An­za­lone, who works with LCV. “It’s a can­did­ate-by-can­did­ate, state-by-state ana­lys­is.”

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