When Senate Democrats pulled an all-night talkathon in March on the perils of climate change, they weren’t looking to pass any legislation on the issue. They got something far more valuable: a nod of approval from a liberal, environmentalist billionaire who has teamed up with climate groups to pour unprecedented money into the midterm elections in behalf of vulnerable Democrats.
Tom Steyer, who pledged to spend $100 million to help Democrats in the midterm elections, thanked the 28 lawmakers — a third of whom are up for reelection on Tuesday — for having “a real conversation about a critical issue.” Steyer, his NextGen Climate Action super PAC, and other organizations sharing his green agenda, such as the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), have emerged as kingmakers and key funding sources for Democrats in a year when the party faces a difficult political climate and a disenchanted liberal base.
Environmentalist organizations serving as the latest power brokers on the Left have had to appeal to the broader Democratic coalition for their success. The organizations’ stated mission is to focus on green-friendly issues, but they have spent millions of dollars this cycle to bring attention to non-related issues — such as abortion and education spending — that typically draw in Democratic voters.
“This cycle you have really seen the environmental, climate movement across the board play in the most significant way,” Democratic operative Chris Lehane told Politico. Though Steyer may not ultimately meet his $100 million pledge, the green wing’s expected $85 million contribution is a sign of how influential it has become.
LCV’s election spending has quintupled in the past four years alone. In the 2010 midterms, the group spent $5.5 million; at the time, it was the largest amount the group had ever spent in an election cycle. Two years later, they ratcheted up spending to nearly $15 million to support the president’s reelection effort. This year, LCV president Gene Karpinski told the Washington Post that the group aims to pour $25 million into Senate, House, gubernatorial, and statehouse races across the country.
That may not mean much for the environment, but it means something for the Democratic party. LCV, which describes itself as working “to turn environmental values into national, state, and local priorities,” aims to be a major financial player in crucial election contests — not by beating the drum on environmental issues but by reinforcing Democratic messaging on a host of political issues. In the past two weeks alone, LCV announced buys of $1.6 million in Colorado and $4.2 million in North Carolina to help the reelection bids of Democratic senators Mark Udall and Kay Hagan, respectively. With Georgia’s Senate race tightening dramatically, LCV jumped in, naming Republican David Perdue one of its “Dirty Dozen” targeted candidates shortly after it endorsed his Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn.
Coordination has also been key to the movement’s newfound prominence. Karpinski explained that “there’s not a day that goes by that someone on our team doesn’t talk to someone on the Steyer team.” His group has received nearly three-quarters of a million dollars from NextGen Climate thus far, and he expects contributions to top $1 million before the end of the elections. The green groups have also developed strategies and organized voter-outreach efforts on the ground in multiple states.
Though Karpinski told the Post that the increased spending is an attempt to make climate change “part of the conversation” in the midterm elections, he seems to know it’s not a top concern for voters, who consistently rank it toward the bottom of their priorities list. LCV’s ads in some battleground states don’t address climate change at all. In Iowa, for example, where LCV has spent $1.5 million to support Democrat Bruce Braley, the group is now attacking his Republican opponent, Joni Ernst, for cuts to education and Social Security, rather than addressing her environmental record. A cursory reference to Ernst’s opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency is included at the tail end of the LCV ads, and only as part of a broader litany of complaints. Other ads from LCV in other states, from New Hampshire to North Carolina, focus largely on the libertarian Koch brothers and their influence on the election process. Last month, a NextGen Climate ad attacked Colorado Republican Cory Gardner over the issue of birth control.
To see just how far LCV’s ads have strayed from its environmental cause, just look at the Democratic primary that took place in deep-blue Hawaii. In an ad for incumbent Hawaiian senator Brian Schatz, the group made passing reference to his leadership on an effort “to expand national parks” before touting his economic record and his success boosting Aloha State tourism.
LCV’s strategy mirrors that of the National Rifle Association, which this year launched a wide-ranging ad campaign touching on issues from the IRS scandal to media bias to foreign policy. The goal is to reach more voters and go toe to toe with the NRA’s longtime foe, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who this year has poured millions into his own political ads.
But even more than the Second Amendment, environmental issues energize a small number of voters passionate about them. Pouring money into races in any capacity, even if it’s not for ads about environmental issues or the Second Amendment, allows the groups to forge financial and personal relationships with the politicians who might help them advance their agenda in Washington.
In Washington statehouse races, NextGen Climate has spent $1.25 million to get climate-change legislation enacted in the next session, much to the chagrin of state lawmakers. “It’s an issue that the campaigns probably wouldn’t be addressing without for this [sic] outside money coming in,” Washington State University government and public-policy professor Travis N. Ridout told the New York Times. “Steyer has sort of forced campaigns to talk about this. . . . Democrats would prefer not to talk about it, and I suspect Republicans would prefer not to talk about it.”
The real impact of these environmental groups, which have been reinforcing the Democratic party with an unprecedented infusion of cash, is better measured by the outcome of the contests in battleground states across the country. And if in the next Congress you see an all-night gabfest on green issues, you’ll know just how much hot air money can buy.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.