Once considered an easy victory for conservatives, the race for one U.S. senate seat in Texas is becoming increasingly heated. Republican Ted Cruz has begun to sound the alarm as Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke draws ever closer to the conservative in state polls.
Part of the underlying tension defining the race stems from the starkly opposing visions of both candidates. If Cruz wins in November, Texas will see a continuation of the conservative agenda long-touted by state officials. If O’Rourke wins, Texans are in for a radically different vision.
And while issues like health care and immigration have defined the race, the environmental records of both men offer wildly opposing previews of what the future could hold.
As a congressman representing his hometown, the far western desert border city of El Paso, O’Rourke has emerged as a relatively progressive voice on climate and sustainability issues.
He holds a 95 percent lifetime record with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an organization that assigns politicians scores based on their environmental votes. His stand-alone rating for 2017 is 100 percent, accounting for votes on water policy, climate change, pipelines, and funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others.
“Beto is an incredible environmental champion who stands up for the air we breathe, the water we drink,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs, told ThinkProgress. The organization’s action fund endorsed O’Rourke back in December 2017 based on his votes and platform.
But growing media coverage of O’Rourke’s campaign has mostly skipped over his environmental record. That’s in conflict with the larger reality of Texas — a Gulf Coast state vulnerable to drought, heatwaves, and hurricanes, with a booming energy sector and a significant farming industry.
Experts have repeatedly cited Texas as one of the states most vulnerable to climate change, thanks in large part to its precarious location. That came into stark focus last year when Hurricane Harvey roared ashore, devastating the sprawling metropolis of Houston, the state’s largest city. A year later, many Texans in the area are still struggling to recover.
Another leading problem for Texans are rising temperatures, including a recent heat wave so brutal that it overwhelmed the state’s electrical grid earlier this summer. Then there are issues like the border wall proposed by the Trump administration, which could harm the state’s environment and animals, and possibly forcing at least one state park to close. That’s all in addition to an oil boom in the Permian Basin, located in West Texas, where residents have reported health problems linked to methane flaring.
O’Rourke hasn’t shied away from green issues. The candidate has historically lobbied hard for the federal protection of public lands like El Paso’s beloved Castner Range, which he has pushed to make a national monument. He has also strongly opposed the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and defended the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.
Energy also features largely on the candidate’s campaign website — Texas is both a leading producer of fossil fuels and renewables, with an emphasis on wind and solar.
O’Rourke is pretty clear about which he prefers. While the senate hopeful touts “comprehensive energy reform” aimed at optimizing current energy resources, his website emphasizes “incentivizing the innovation of new and renewable sources of energy.” He also endorses empowering broader EPA regulation of fracking and pipelines.
The Democrat additionally calls for the United States to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump has said he will exit. O’Rourke also has a commitment to agriculture, a crucial component of the Texas economy. The state employs hundreds of thousands of farmers, something the candidate has proudly noted in addition to emphasizing the importance of investing in rural areas.
But that commitment comes hand-in-hand with environmental caveats.
“Environmentally sustainable farming can help preserve Texas lands for the future,” O’Rourke’s website notes. “However, serving as stewards of the environment should make clear economic sense. Federal policy can elevate best practices and empower farmers to adopt innovative farming techniques.”
Outside of Texas, O’Rourke’s votes in Washington have largely fallen in line with the platform he has touted on the campaign trail. Sittenfeld of the LCV said that O’Rourke has consistently spoken out against Trump’s policies.
That’s a stark contrast to Cruz.
“Ted Cruz is a disaster,” Sittenfeld said dryly. The staunchly conservative Republican has seen little love from green groups — LCV gave the senator a 0 percent ranking in 2017 and a mere 3 percent lifetime voting score.
The junior senator from Texas may have run for president against Trump, but he has largely embraced his policies since then. Cruz has supported the rollback of Obama-era regulations and lauded the White House decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. A long-time skeptic when it comes to climate change, Cruz has repeatedly questioned the scientific evidence linking human beings to warming global temperatures.
He has also consistently supported fossil fuel industries, in addition to welcoming their money. Throughout his career, Cruz has taken more than $2.7 million in oil and gas campaign donations, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
O’Rourke has sworn off all campaign contributions coming from any political action committee. He has also committed to accepting no donations from fossil fuel corporations, according to the environmental group 350 Austin. However, the Center for Responsive Politics notes that O’Rourke has received some donations from individuals working in the fossil fuel industry.
“He’s the opposite of Ted Cruz,” said Sittenfeld, who called O’Rourke “a real champion.” Cruz, she underscored, is “constantly catering to polluters.”
Texas voters will have their say in November, but Sittenfeld is correct in noting that their options offer radically different possibilities. That choice — between the policies of the Trump administration and a progressive seemingly intent on fighting them head-on — will determine the direction in which Texas will head as the Lone Star State barrels into the future.