POLITICS

Are money and power changing the environmental movement?

In a widely circulated memo this week, environmental groups boasted that they're "poised to execute the last phase of our biggest and most sophisticated electoral effort ever."

They're on track to spend $85 million, they said, including $40 million on six Senate races.

Not only are environmental groups spending record amounts of cash on the races, they are also trumpeting a common vision with what advocates call an unprecedented level of coordination. And they vow it will last through future elections.

But their critics say the environmental community's clout has made the movement more pragmatic at the expense of core values, including defeating the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

"This can be called the election when the environmental movement lost its virginity," said Mike McKenna, an energy lobbyist and Republican strategist. "I think their efforts have become more professional. They've actually gotten legitimate guys involved."

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Last year billionaire donor Tom Steyer helped elect Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey (D) to the Senate by opposing fellow Democrat Rep. Stephen Lynch, who supported construction of KXL. Steyer then floated the idea of opposing vulnerable Louisiana incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), a strong fossil fuel supporter, though in the end he decided to focus on other high-profile races.

Now Steyer, head of the NextGen Climate political action committee, is part of an informal coalition of green groups helping boost candidates who support KXL.

The coalition includes the political arms of the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and League of Conservation Voters, which is supporting the likes of Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), both of whom want the pipeline built.

Last year environmental groups, including LCV, also touted their efforts to help put Democrat Terry McAuliffe into the Virginia governor's mansion. The groups did it, they said, by highlighting Republican Ken Cucinelli's skepticism of climate change.

Now, even though environmental groups are highlighting climate concerns in their campaigns, they are also running on issues like abortion and the economy hoping to support their allies and beat their foes.

This month, NextGen released a two-minute ad -- long by modern campaign standards -- questioning Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner's support for legislation meant to restrict abortion rights for women. Gardner is looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D).

"One day he campaigns on the issue of women's health, but then, when pressed by reporters to explain why he is sponsoring a bill denying women their rights," the ad says, "Gardner tries to change the subject, part of a pattern of deception."

The ad raised the eyebrows of environmentalists and industry advocates alike.

"It was a little surprising," said Donald Bryson, North Carolina director of the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity. "Energy and the environment are sort of Steyer's go-to things."

Environmental groups leading the effort say it's all part of their strategy. And it appears that different factions within the movement, from LCV and NextGen to 350.org, known for its staunch support for moving the world away from fossil fuels, are on board.

"We're spending more money than ever before and coordinating better than ever before," said Gene Karpinski, LCV's president. "So we're being smart and strategic and sitting around tables state by state and nationally."

Karthik Ganapathy, U.S. communications manager for 350.org, said groups are adjusting to "political realities" in different states. Environmental issues are essential, he said, but voters have myriad concerns.

About Steyer's spending and campaign efforts, Ganapathy said, "I think he's been an incredibly important counterweight to the Koch brothers."

The question is, are liberal donors like Steyer becoming too much like the Koch brothers they so revile?

Critics like Bryson said it's inevitable that green groups would focus on politics over policy once they became more involved in elections.

"Once you start focusing on partisanship, [the] message really starts to become partisan," Bryson said. "You're not focused on the issues that you initially" cared about.

To others, efforts by Steyer and other environmentalists this cycle are a sign that the movement is coming into its own politically.

"My observation from the Steyer team is that they want to win," said Erich Pica, president of the advocacy group Friends of the Earth. "His team is using whatever effective communications tools and issues to win those elections."

'Proof ... in the pudding'

In an interview, Karpinski defended the environmental movement's spending decisions. Yes, the candidate choices are pragmatic, he said, but they also provide a "sharp contrast" to the alternative based on how they've scored on key issues.

LCV's "biggest single investment at the federal level is the state of North Carolina," Karpinski said. "Kay Hagan [has an] 84 percent lifetime score, leans into the climate change issue, understands that EPA has a role to do to cut climate change pollution."

In contrast, he said, Hagan's opponent, North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), has either tried to avoid questions about climate change or expressed questions about human impacts.

"That's part of the conversation. We're making it part of the conversation," Karpinski said of the climate change debate. "We're running ads talking about that very issue."

The group's ads against Tillis have also focused on other environmental issues, including Duke Energy Corp.'s massive coal ash spill in the state earlier this year. Tillis backed a bill in the state Legislature that environmentalists say won't do enough to hold Duke accountable for the spill.

Similarly, Udall has an LCV lifetime score of 97 percent compared with Gardner's 9 percent grade. In Alaska, Begich has a 77 percent lifetime score. "Not perfect for sure, but a sharp contrast" to his GOP opponent, Dan Sullivan, Karpinski said.

Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, a nonprofit group that doesn't engage in political campaigns, said, "The calculation has been made that the No. 1 priority is to retain Democratic control of the Senate. If that happens then people will feel that the decision that was made was the correct one."

He added, "The proof will be in the pudding. On Election Day we'll see what happens. If that doesn't happen, there'll be some questioning of that strategy."

Karpinski said groups were indeed looking to "protect the Senate firewall" to stop House measures seen as anti-environment. But he also mentioned LCV endorsements for moderate Republicans like Maine Sen. Susan Collins. At least some liberals were quick to question backing Collins, who not only supports KXL but has also voted against EPA's climate-related rulemaking.

Still, Karpinski said the group was focused on making sure EPA could move forward with its proposals to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. "We need to make sure those rules are the strongest possible, they are defended in the Congress and implemented well in the states," he said.

But what about KXL? That's a priority too, Karpinski said. "It's not," he said, "either-or."

'Major headache'

There are signs environmentalists want to boost their focus on KXL after the November elections and increase their pressure on lawmakers and President Obama on climate issues. The movement's political spending will likely ramp up, too, after this year's record-setting $85 million effort.

"$85 million is a tremendous amount of money in a midterm," but it's still a "drop in the bucket" compared with industry groups, said Pica of Friends of the Earth. "Every environmental group that has a PAC needs to be figuring out how to up its game."

350.org promised to be a "major headache" in an internal memo obtained by MSNBC. "We're ready for a fight, and the last thing President Obama and Democrats need is a rebellion from the left."

It remains to be seen whether environmental groups will avoid a rebellion within their ranks. Divisions exist on issues like natural gas. Steyer has said he's not opposed to all fracking while 350.org is anti-fracking.

Observers say environmentalists are more likely to stick together if Republicans take over the Senate because they will have a common threat. Next year's United Nations climate conference is also of intense interest. Then there's 2016.

"It's going to be more important than ever for Democrats to turn out their base," said Ganapathy, touting the importance of running on climate issues. "In addition to being right for the planet, I think it's a smart move for Democrats politically."

Twitter: @ManuelQ | Email: mquinones@eenews.net

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