Just a couple short months ago, the deck was stacked against environmental groups.
Fossil fuel interests were pouring tens of millions of dollars into campaign ads across the country, the coal industry was successfully pushing a “War on Coal” meme to discredit Obama in key swing states, the Republican party had adopted a disciplined messaging platform criticizing federal support of clean energy, and Mitt Romney had assembled an A-list of fossil fuel executives to fuel his campaign.
In the last two months of the campaign alone, groups promoting fossil fuels spent $270 million on television ads to influence the congressional and presidential races.
But in key national races, it didn’t work.
All that money ultimately failed to change the presidency, failed to change the balance of power in Congress, and failed to give Republicans the important coal states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Environmental groups are now taking a victory lap and touting their targeted spending and grassroots campaigning in important races, which they say helped neutralize the vast sums of money dumped into the election by fossil fuel interests.
“We’re all smiling,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, who described the win for Obama and other environmentally-friendly candidates as “big” many times over.
“Big polluters spent unprecedented amounts of big money to spread big lies and they lost big time. Across the country, clean energy champions are the big winners.”
Indeed, environmental advocates won the vast majority of races they focused on.
The League of Conservation Voters, with grassroots help from the activist organization CREDO, rolled out a $3 million campaign to defeat five climate-denying House Republicans dubbed the “Flat Earth Five.” Four out of the five members of Congress — Anne Marie Buerlke (NY), Dan Lungren (CA), Francisco Canseco (TX), and Joe Walsh (IL) — lost their seats. (Lungren lost by 184 votes but has not conceded). Dan Benishek (MI) was the only person to stay in office.
In the Senate, the results were also very good. Seven of eight candidates supported by environmental groups won their races, thus preventing Republicans from taking the Senate and cutting off the drumbeat of anti-environmental legislation in the House.
Among the 12 “Climate Heroes” promoted by environmentalists, 11 of 12 won their races. The 12th, Washington State climate hawk Jay Inslee, looks poised to win his bid for governor as well.
And in the presidential race, the political victories for Obama were also big. Despite the attack campaign around Obama’s supposed “War on Coal,” he won Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, three key coal swing states. Obama also won in Iowa and Colorado, two swing states with large wind industries. Over the summer, the Obama campaign messaged hard on support for the wind tax credit in those battlegrounds after Romney said he wanted support for the industry to expire.
Ultimately, the election doesn’t shift the balance of power on the national level. Nor does it necessarily give climate advocates a mandate for broad action in the second term. But environmental groups say this week’s election shows they can have an impact when they flex their political muscle.
“We went head to head with the likes of Crossroads and Karl Rove,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that targeted Republican Heather Wilson in New Mexico’s Senate race by running environmental-related ads.
“A race that was supposed to be competitive and factor into the control of the Senate was effectively over early on. This is a future warning. We can compete and we can win,” said Rappaport Clark.
The same was true in the Montana Senate race, where the National Wildlife Federation and other groups rallied traditionally-conservative hunters and anglers for Democrat Jon Tester. Even with tens of millions of dollars flowing into the state to defeat Tester, he ultimately won the tight race.
Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, believes that conservation issues played an important role in the outcome.
“Sportsmen believe that conservation is just as important — and sometimes more important — than gun rights. Tester’s win is a win for sportsmen. The bottom line is conservation has beat oil companies and polluter spending.”
These efforts were boosted by $15 million in targeted ad spending, much of it coming from the League of Conservation Voters. But it was old fashioned grassroots organizing through phone calls and canvasing that also made the difference. (The Sierra Club put 12,000 volunteers into the field alone).
“Knock, baby, knock beat drill, baby, drill,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America.
The precise influence of environmental and energy issues in many of these races isn’t known. But a poll released by environmental groups yesterday indicates that they did play an influential role.
According to the survey, only 14 percent of voters said that Republican messaging on energy had an impact on their vote in both presidential and Senate races. Voters also said they trusted Obama’s energy plan over Romney’s by 51-44 percent. And in spite of the tens of millions of dollars attacking clean energy, 64 percent of those surveyed said they have a favorable view of renewables.
These results are a solid political victory, say environmental advocates. But now groups must work to turn a short-term win into an effective long-term strategy.
“This is a great day. But clearly we have much further to go,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “We saw the American public go another round…We will be supportive of the president, we will challenge the president, we will work with the president to finally take on climate change and treat it as the serious challenge that it is.”