While licking their wounds from this week's losses, environmental groups are now looking at making a difference in future campaigns. "We're all in for 2016," said League of Conservation Voters chief Gene Karpinski yesterday.
Environmental groups spent tens of millions of dollars this election cycle and opened the door to an even beefier war chest in the future, which would come in handy in competitive races.
But potential candidates, not even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered the favorite Democrat to run for president, should take the environmental movement's support for granted, some green groups say.
Clinton has praised the Obama administration's efforts to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline, another top issue for environmental groups, she hasn't elaborated much since 2010, when she said she was "inclined" to approve it.
"Well, you know, I can't really talk about it, because I was in the office that has primary responsibility for making the decision," Clinton told a Canadian audience last month. "I don't want to inject myself into what is a continuing process or to, in any way, undermine my successor as he tries to make this decision."
Karthik Ganapathy, U.S. communications manager for 350.org, one of the most vocal anti-KXL groups, said in an interview, "Clinton has a lot to prove to environmental groups and environmentalists. We've going to be looking to vet her."
That desire by environmentalists to vet Clinton runs contrary to her strategy of sidestepping the issue, analysts say. "She doesn't want to have to state [a position] until the Democratic primary is over," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, a veteran of the McCain-Palin campaign.
But if Clinton draws a primary opponent, especially a strong contender, it would likely force her to reveal her views on a number of issues like KXL and coal.
Environmental activist and billionaire donor Tom Steyer, founder of the political action committee NextGen Climate, told MSNBC in September that Clinton would benefit from a primary challenge. "Being forced to refine what you say and think is a good thing," he said.
But that also holds risks. Speaking about candidates who are not on the right side of environmental issues, including KXL, 350.org's Ganapathy said: "I'm not going to knock on doors for them."
Erich Pica, president of the group Friends of the Earth, had a similar opinion. "Groups shouldn't prejudge candidates on their climate and energy position," he said. "Whether it's Hillary Clinton or [anyone else], I think they have to earn the environmental endorsement."
Still, some political analysts and insiders feel the environmental community's support for Clinton is a foregone conclusion.
"If she's the Democratic nominee, who else are they going to work for?" said Hank Sheinkopf, a past campaign adviser to former President Bill Clinton. "Environmental groups will have to go with Secretary Clinton whether they like it or not."
Her mixed energy and environment record stems at least in part from her time in the Senate. As a lawmaker, Clinton was neither a champion for the fossil fuel industry nor a hard-line environmentalist.
Now, her desire to appeal to a broad range of voters, much like her husband, the former president, could become both a strength and a liability, strategists said.
Greens still remember the former president negotiating with Republicans on environmental issues, including some related to coal, and worry she may do the same.
The League of Conservation Voters gives her an 82 percent lifetime score -- lower than many Democrats, such as retiring Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who have long supported green issues. She has voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but has supported expanded offshore oil drilling.
Clinton also made pro-coal statements during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Even though she lost to President Obama, she won both West Virginia and Kentucky.
"I think the Clintons believe they can carry Kentucky and West Virginia. But it's going to take some work," said Kentucky political analyst Al Cross, noting increasing support for Republicans in Appalachia. "And they may not be willing to work that hard for that small number of electoral votes."
A possible challenge from the left
Possible contenders for the Democratic nomination who could challenge Clinton from the left include Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Maryland League of Conservation Voters in 2011 gave O'Malley a B-plus grade. More recently, environmental groups have called on the governor to oppose the Cove Point natural gas export project. He has remained largely silent on the issue.
Sanders, on the other hand, has a 95 percent lifetime LCV score and a 100 percent 2013 score, and has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers on Capitol Hill against KXL.
Environmental groups stressed that they have emerged from the midterm with an unprecedented level of unity and coordination. But whether that will carry on through 2016 remains to be seen.
In the 2014 election, greens coalesced behind electable candidates -- including a number of KXL supporters -- who had uneven environmental records, but who promised in some form to deal with climate change.
Yesterday, Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, said groups would work to ensure that a climate denier would not win the White House. By those standards, Clinton appears more than acceptable.
Not surprisingly, Republicans disagree, and they've already trained their sights on Clinton.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus linked Clinton to President Obama at a press conference following Tuesday's GOP landslide, previewing a likely Republican line of attack on issues ranging from U.S. EPA's proposed power plant rules to health care and foreign policy.
"President Obama said very clearly that his policies were on the ballot. And voters were very clear in return that they want nothing with the policies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton," Priebus said.
Priebus pointed out that Clinton campaigned for Democratic Senate nominees Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky and Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, both of whom lost by sizable margins. "Hillary couldn't even save the Democrat in a Massachusetts governor's race," Priebus added, referencing Martha Coakley.
But others countered that the midterm elections won't hurt Clinton. "That's more of a media spin," said O'Connell, the GOP strategist, noting that many candidates this year have for months been considered vulnerable.
And when it comes to environmental issues, Karpinski said during a recent interview, "It's time for a woman to be president, I think many people would say. She's the kind of person we need to be running and talking about these issues" (E&ETV's OnPoint, Oct. 28).
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