Midterms 2018: Arizona, Nevada, Virginia, GOP climate, & campaign finance

E&E News reporters Nick Sobczyk, George Cahlink and Nick Bowlin talk with E&E Daily Editor Manuel Quiñones about their Campaign 2018 reporting so far on coastal Virginia politics, where energy power players are putting their money, GOP moderates on climate and an upcoming reporting trip to cover close races, and money-filled ballot initiatives in Nevada and Arizona.

Manuel Quiñones: Hello, everyone. We've been doing a ton of coverage on the upcoming midterms here at E&E News, and we want to use this venue to discuss some of that coverage that we have been reporting on and that we're about to report on, including people going on trips around the country to bring you the latest information on the races with a focus on energy and the environment. So we have just some of the people who've been doing that reporting. Nick Sobczyk, who covers climate politics here, just one of several people who covers climate politics. And George Cahlink, who covers Capitol Hill with a focus on the House. And Nick Bowlin, who covers elections generally and is kind of our guru on campaign finance issues.

So let's start with -- and we'll get this conversation flowing, but let's start with Nick Sobczyk -- we have two Nicks -- who just got back from coastal Virginia, where he was looking at the race dealing with Scott Taylor, Congressman Scott Taylor. What are some takeaways from there?

Nick Sobczyk: Well, some takeaways, for one thing, the district covers the entire coast of Virginia, including Tangier Island, which is sort of seen as the quintessential example of how climate change is affecting people today, and not only that, but sea-level rise is a massive issue in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, parts of which the district also covers. And a sort of major question there is how do you get the money to mitigate this flooding that's happening as a result of sinking land and of sea-level rise, and Scott Taylor is on the Appropriations Committee, so that is a big selling point for him. It's also a heavily -- a district that's heavily reliant on the military. There's lots of bases and installations in the area, and so that's big, but at the same time, the environmental groups have put a lot of weight behind his opponent, Elaine Luria, who has got an endorsement from the League of Conservation Voters. They just announced a $300,000 TV ad campaign today, actually, for her and she's also one of the top candidates for 314 Action, the group that promotes scientists.

She's a nuclear engineer with a background in the Navy. And she's sort of the quintessential Democratic candidate. Actually I would say she's a woman and a scientist in a cycle in which there have been sort of record numbers of both running. And then there's another wildcard in this race, which is Scott Taylor, some of his staffers were allegedly involved in forging signatures on a petition to get a third-party candidate on the ballot in order to siphon votes from Elaine Luria. So there's sort of a lot of factors and it's one of Virginia's most competitive House races and it's certainly going to be interesting to see how climate politics play in that moving forward.

Manuel Quiñones: Well, one of the -- we were talking yesterday about the race, getting ready for you to write the story, which is coming out in the next couple days. Is that -- even though climate change is a big deal there, you know, the Democrats -- she's not running only on green issues, or even mostly on green issues, and the race might not even hinge on that.

Nick Sobczyk: Yeah, it's a sort of a purple district. So it's not a place where you're going to win by saying we need to reduce emissions immediately, we need to get to zero emissions in five years or anything like that. And in fact, a lot of her focus has been on health care. There's a lot of veterans who she has been hoping to capture as well as a pretty significant African-American population in Virginia Beach who she's been hoping to get as well to come out based on health care issues. So I think the green issues will be a big factor. I mean, the first debate -- well, it wasn't really a debate, it was a candidate forum, but the first sort of event with both candidates in the race last week was at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and it entirely focused on Chesapeake Bay issues, sea-level rise and aquatic culture issues.

Manuel Quiñones: And that, Nick Bowlin, how does that sound when it comes to green races around the country? You know, it looks like environmental groups, the League of Conservation Voters, are -- they're putting a lot of money into multiple races, but at the same time, they're not spending all that money talking about the environment and it looks like a lot of candidates are not, you know, candidates where the environment matters in the districts. They're also not focusing only on the environment. Any perspective on that?

Nick Bowlin: Yeah, well one of the interesting things that I think we've seen is -- and the LCV and green groups have done this before, but I think they're doing it more this cycle -- is linking public health issues to green issues. So they just ran an ad, like a $700,000 ad in Claudia Tenney's district in upstate New York yesterday where the ad doesn't mention climate but does mention asthma and diabetes rates, and her votes -- her health care votes. So they're trying to tie air pollution to asthma rates, and because the ACA votes to roll back that have been such an important part of the cycle, I think they're sort of like trying to stay with the times. And then when there's a district where there's like an obvious local issue, like Tangier Island or something, I think they're letting the candidates handle that themselves but not necessarily hammering global climate change.

Manuel Quiñones: Exactly. And, George, give me some perspective on that cause you have written two now iterations of our green list where you look at all the races that, where energy and environment is having some role, but they're not all only about energy and environment.

George Cahlink: Right, and I think Nick's play is well-taken that I don't think green issues are at the top of many races, if any races in the country. They're often handled as local issues, though there are distinct green issues in many races. And what we did is we went through all the competitive House races, and we found about 30 or so that, where we think green issues will be prominent. Two easy examples, Dana Rohrabacher out in Southern California is perhaps Congress' leading climate denier, potential candidate for the House Science Committee. He's facing a real challenge in his Democratic opponent, and a lot of Democratic activists have argued, you know, that his views on climate change are out of sync for a district that's on the coast.

Then the other side of the country, in southern Florida, Carlos Curbelo, the leader of the Climate Solutions Caucus in Miami, he's running in a district that Hillary Clinton covered by 10 points, and he's certainly stressed his credibility on the climate, his efforts to do something about it that's popular with voters there. So there are pockets where you see it, but I don't think it's risen to the top of many races.

Manuel Quiñones: And, Nick Sobczyk, I want to go back to you in terms of you mentioned the climate solution, that big bipartisan group of people who -- lawmakers who want to do something on climate change but their ideas diverge a lot. This election might cannibalize that group, might gut that group. What's ...

Nick Sobczyk: Well, to some extent, it's certainly possible. I think, we did a story, not any of us, but in Climatewire, there was a story a couple weeks ago that I think 10 of the 28 races that Cook Political Report rates as Republican toss-ups are Climate Solutions Caucus members. So certainly, yeah, there's a huge number of people, of Republicans in that group that are considered vulnerable, might lose, and it's a little bit unclear what would happen, for example, if Curbelo, who is the co-chair of the caucus were to lose, although I think it would certainly survive.

So yeah, but that sort of also highlights one of the criticisms of the group among green groups, environmentalists is that it's just sort of this shield for vulnerable Republicans and there are some Republicans in that group -- certainly not Curbelo or Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania, who's a co-sponsor on a carbon tax bill that Curbelo introduced, but some of those Republicans, the criticism is that they are sort of there to boast their climate credentials without really having any climate credentials.

Nick Bowlin: Yeah, I think it's no secret that when you look at the numbers of that caucus, it's increased exponentially this year. It's a lot of conservative Republicans looking to sort of shore up their moderate bona fides as the election nears, and a lot of people feel like it's a fig leaf, for lack of a better term, for Republicans on environmental issues.

Manuel Quiñones: And, George, let's stay with you. So you're heading out tomorrow, I believe, to Nevada and Arizona. What are you going to be looking for?

George Cahlink: Yeah, we have two of the most competitive races in the country in Nevada and Arizona. In Nevada, you have Dean Heller, a first-term senator being challenged by a first-term House member, Jacky Rosen. It's one of the most competitive races in the country, and in some ways it's really a referendum. I think Democrats would very much like it to be a referendum on Trump, and they're arguing that Rosen will be a check on Trump. She's been very critical of how Republicans have handled health care, but if you listen to the debate, she's really tried hard to tie Heller to Trump.

Heller, for his part, has tied himself as an independent. He's said again and again during recent debate he's the fifth most bipartisan senator. He's tried to talk about issues that are, that he sees as good for Nevada, has emphasized tax cuts, including those that he says he wrote tax breaks into the Republican tax overhaul for a variety of renewable energies. You know, Yucca Mountain is a huge environmental issue in this race, but I don't think there's a politician running anywhere in Nevada that supports Yucca, and while both Heller and Rosen will criticize one another and claim they're not doing enough to stop Yucca, they're both strongly opposed. So I think whoever wins that Senate race, you would see a sea change in the position there.

So I'm going to start off in Las Vegas and then drive about five hours south to Phoenix for a few days, and yeah, a very competitive race there too. Jeff Flake, frequent Trump critic, has decided to retire, and you have two House members, female House members, relatively junior female House members, Martha McSally, a former Air Force bomber pilot, taking on Kyrsten Sinema. Again, this is a race that everybody says is a toss-up.

Sinema is interesting in that she is not aligned on environmental issues. She's not sort of as closely aligned with all the environmental positions as some Democrats. She has a moderate streak. She's voted for some of the rollbacks that Trump has supported. Greens aren't fully comfortable, but I, you know, I talked to a Republican operative yesterday who said she's the most probably skilled Democrat for the state in Arizona. I mean, Arizona, at best, is a, maybe a purple state, but really it's a red state. And this operative was making the point that if you want to win Arizona as a Democrat, you have to be a moderate.

Martha McSally is more of a national security Republican in the mold of John McCain. We've seen her go on the attack in recent days, really going after Sinema on national security issues, on some things she's said in the past. I think those attacks suggest the close nature of the race, you know, if one candidate has a big edge or somebody's comfortable, they tend not to go on the attack, but it suggests it's a close race and it will go down to the wire. But yeah, they're two great races. I'm looking forward to getting out there, going to spend some time canvassing with people, seeing the candidates on the trail. Should be a good few days out in the west.

Manuel Quiñones: And then you're also looking into a couple ballot initiatives that should also yield.

George Cahlink: Yeah, what's really caught my eye with these ballot initiatives, and we've run a bit about them in Energywire, is the extraordinary amount of spending. In Arizona, there's a ballot initiative that would mandate certain renewable level goals, 50 percent by 2030. There's been $40 million spent on this ballot initiative. Now by contrast, the Senate race, they spent less than $30 million. And then in Arizona, there's a push to sort of deregulate the public utility, and that has generated $100 million in spending. You have on one side the Nevada utility, which Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, has some interest in. And then you have on the other side some of the proponents of deregulation being funded by the casino industry because they want to, you know, they want to have access to what they view as cheaper energy for their operations. So it's just really fascinating. The amount of money for these races is just extraordinary, and I talked to some people in Nevada yesterday and they just said if you watch TV, it's just being blanketed with, you know, your rates are going to go up or we need clean energy. It's really extraordinary the money being spent.

Manuel Quiñones: Talking about money, Nick Bowlin has been looking at campaign finance. You know, what's any trends, any takeaways that we can get?

Nick Bowlin: One interesting thing that I've been following is just sort of tracking the energy industry heavyweights around the country for Senate race donations. So the sort of representative examples are Joe Craft from Alliance Coal, Harold Hamm from Continental Resources, Larry Nichols from Devon Energy, and then Bob Murray of Murray Energy. And so all four either personal donations, but more often they're, the political action committees associated with their companies, have showed up in the donations often giving the maximum to Patrick Morrisey in the second quarter. And then in July, Craft, Nichols and Hamm all showed up at a fundraiser in Oklahoma City for Rick Scott. And then most recently, the sort of like energy industry heavyweights had not played in the, not very much in the Montana Senate race, but then in the filings that came out just a couple weeks ago, Alliance, Murray Energy, Continental and Devon Energy all showed up in Matt Rosendale's filings in Montana.

And so there's definitely a pattern of them donating sort of all at the same time, all in the same quarter to pretty high-profile Republicans, all of whom Rosendale, Scott and Morrisey have ties to the Trump administration. Trump was just in Montana to stump with Rosendale. And you know, this is probably just examples. You know, Craft and Murray are famously tied to the Trump administration and were both influential in rollbacks of environmental regulations and probably an example of these big energy companies tracking important Republicans for the Senate and, you know, Trump favorites. But yeah, it's been interesting to follow that.

George Cahlink: Harold Hamm, ought to make the point too, Harold Hamm is the finance chairman for Kevin Cramer, congressman who's challenging Heidi Heitkamp for her Senate seat. And he actually is, you know, his top fundraiser and he's given Cramer access to all sorts of energy cash. And Hamm was at one time talked about as even a potential Energy secretary. So some of what Nick is saying there also is playing out, I think in North Dakota.

Nick Bowlin: And I mean, if you want to talk about the most important Republican Senate candidates, it's Rosendale, Scott, Morrisey, Cramer, those four. And they all have these -- to different degrees -- but these same sort of like four names keep showing up in and around them, which is interesting. And I mean, you got Hamm to -- excuse me, Cramer -- you know, he told you that Hamm was one of the most important figures in getting him into the race because he was sort of hesitant.

George Cahlink: Yeah, yeah. I mean, at one point Cramer actually said I'm not going to run. Then he reconsidered, and apparently one of the conditions, and we've gone back and forth what the truth is, but one of the alleged conditions is that Hamm would agree to be his finance chairman, and that's indeed what exists. I asked Cramer about that recently and he kind of said, well yeah, but the deciding factor was my wife, which is something you often hear from politicians.

Manuel Quiñones: And we'll leave it there. We'll keep meeting here in this venue to talk about the campaign coverage that we're doing. We have someone in Florida right now looking at all the races down there and issues with the algae bloom and the red tide. I'm Manuel Quiñones. I'm the editor of E&E Daily here. And if you want to follow our coverage, you know, you can go to our website. There's also, you go to the right side of our website, there's a little blurb that says "Reports." Click there and you'll find the Campaign 2018 report page where we're compiling all these stories, and we're working on a project to make it more user-friendly so you can stay in touch with what's going on. So I'll see you soon. Thank you.