Politics & Policy

The Greens’ Malleable Principles

Environmentalist Tom Steyer shrugs at Senate Democrats who support Keystone.

Earlier this year, billionaire Tom Steyer pledged to raise $100 million to make climate change a dominant issue in the 2014 midterm elections. That sounds impressive, but as the midterms take shape, a serious dilemma is emerging for Steyer and his allies: Sticking to their principles would require them to refuse help to quite a few key Senate Democrats running for reelection in red states.

Back in 2013, Steyer pulled no punches against Democrat Stephen Lynch in the Massachusetts Senate primary, running a faux “Big Oil Supports Steve Lynch” ad and offering a video of Lynch’s face morphing into George W. Bush. The primary criticism of Lynch was that he supports the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada through the U.S. heartland to refineries in Texas.

But sometime between last year and this year, it became perfectly fine for a senator to support the Keystone Pipeline, as long as that senator has Steyer’s preferred party affiliation. Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who advises Steyer, told The Hill that Steyer’s group would not run ads against Democrats, even if they support Keystone. “We aren’t going to go in to try to undermine and hurt Democrats.”

Steyer, who earlier this year said the pipeline “makes no sense for the United States of America and the world,” personally lobbied the president on the issue, urging him to oppose Keystone, at a fundraiser at Steyer’s house overlooking San Francisco Bay. Steyer’s organization is running an ad that declares, “Keystone means more profit for investors like China, more power for their economy, and more carbon pollution for the world.”

Yet he and his organization are now giving a free pass to 17 Senate Democrats who voted in 2013 for a nonbinding resolution in support of the pipeline — basically every vulnerable Democratic incumbent except for Senator Mark Udall of Colorado.

Vulnerable pro-Keystone Democrats might even receive a check from the billionaire: “Steyer declined to say whether he would contribute to Democrats who support the pipeline, including Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana.”

The list of pro-Keystone Senate Democrats also includes Mark Warner of Virginia, who didn’t participate in Harry Reid’s recent all-night talk-a-thon on the Senate floor. Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina lands on the pro side as well: She recently signed a letter that encouraged “President Obama to quickly approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

Nor will Steyer have many anti-Keystone options among the Democrats’ Senate challengers. In Georgia, the likely Democratic Senate nominee, Michelle Nunn, supports building the pipeline. In Iowa, the likely Democratic Senate nominee, Representative Bruce Braley, has flip-flopped on Keystone, voting against it on the floor but in support of it in committee. In Kentucky, the likely Democratic Senate nominee, Alison Lundergran Grimes, offered a vague answer that suggested she hasn’t decided yet whether or not she supports the pipeline. In West Virginia, the likely Democratic Senate nominee, Natalie Tennant, has irked environmentalists by pledging to “stand up to any misguided efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency that will destroy our coal industry.”

Also not on the ballot, but mum on her position on the Keystone Pipeline: Hillary Clinton, who sounded vaguely supportive in 2010 comments. Bill Clinton made comments that were similarly vague in February 2012.

Once Steyer and his allies have found vocal anti-Keystone Democrats, such as Representative Gary Peters, the expected Senate candidate in Michigan, they’ll still face the uphill climb of changing public opinion, which has proven stubbornly resistant to the environmentalist message on climate change. Polling indicates that voters just aren’t that worried about the issue — much less seeing it as the deciding issue when they enter the voting booth.

“At this point, Americans simply are not very worried about either the environment or climate change,” concludes Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization. Given a list of 15 issues to prioritize, Gallup respondents listed the environment as the 13th; climate change was 14th, just above race relations at 15th. “Climate change, the environment, [is] near the bottom of the list of concerns for Americans.” 

The good news for Democrats is that climate change is an issue that a sizable portion of their party base thinks about quite a bit; 36 percent of self-identified Democrats said they worry about it “a great deal.” (Only 10 percent of Republicans said the same.) But that still makes it the eleventh out of 15 issues, behind spending and the deficit (44 percent), crime and violence (42 percent), the availability and affordability of energy (40 percent), and drug use (37 percent). Remember, this is among self-identified Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.

(Fascinatingly, five months after the Obamacare exchanges opened, 57 percent of both Republicans and Democrats rated “the availability and affordability of health care” as something they worry about “a great deal.”)

The silver lining for Steyer and his allies is that more respondents rated the more generic term “the environment” a concern, with 45 percent of Democrats and leaning-Democrats saying they worry about it “a great deal.” But even there, the trend is not Democrats’ friend; Americans are less worried about the environment than they were in the years following Hurricane Katrina:

Steyer’s expensive crusade may prove to be a surprise factor in the midterm elections. Or it may become another version of Mike Bloomberg’s extravagantly self-funded efforts to promote gun control — another case where a billionaire and his high-priced consultants convinced themselves that running a lot of television ads could change the minds of voters who view the world quite differently and who go about their lives far removed from the elites’ luxurious bubble. Last summer, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, concluded that Bloomberg “didn’t help a bit with his ads.” In fact, Leahy lamented, Bloomberg “actually turned off some people that we might have gotten for supporters.” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said he didn’t “think Bloomberg’s ads [were] effective,” and Schumer, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and former president Clinton reportedly asked Bloomberg to stop attacking pro-gun Democrats. Steyer seems to have learned that lesson.

Some political concerns, voters seem to agree, are luxury items.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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