Republicans Embrace Local Environmental Issues In Competitive Races

Cristopher Centers

JUPITER, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 08: President Donald Trump signs an executive order extending the ban … [+] on offshore drilling. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Getty Images Climate change was supposed to dominate the 2020 elections. Since the Labor day,  West Coast wildfires are showing the scale and the destructive […]

Climate change was supposed to dominate the 2020 elections. Since the Labor day,  West Coast wildfires are showing the scale and the destructive potential of the climate crisis. The Green New Deal has generated enormous enthusiasm among young voters. Companies are racing to embrace zero-emission targets. Tesla, with barely 1.3% U.S. automobile market share, is now the most valued automobile company.

Yet, the Commission on Presidential Debates has excluded climate issues from the first presidential debate scheduled for September 29. It wants Trump and Biden to debate their records, vacancy on the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race and violence in cities, and the integrity of the election.

There is more bad news for those concerned about the environment. As per a recent CNBC poll, likely voters rank the following as the most important issues facing the country: (1) economy, jobs and cost of living (43%); political corruption (38%); Covid-19 (35%), law and order (29%), and racism and discrimination (27%). Climate did not make it to the list.

Pew Poll reports similar results. Registered voters are asked to score issues that are “very important” for the 2020 elections. Climate change ranked 11th of 12 issues. Economy at 79% was at the top; only 42% voted for Climate Change.

But Republicans are Selectively Embracing Pro-Environmental Policies

There is good news for environmental voters as well. Competitive elections are forcing politicians to take pro-environment positions that conflict with their legislative records.

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) are up for reelection.  The League of Conservation Voters’ (LCV)  provides an annual (and lifetime) environmental score for members of Congress. In 2019, Senator Gardner’s annual score was  36% (lifetime 11%).  Senator Daines scored 29% (6%).

Yet, both Senators are now portraying themselves as environmental champions. The Republican party has made them the public face of the Great American Outdoors Act, which has increased funding for National Parks and Forests. Coloradans and Montanans love the outdoors, and the recreational industry has a sizeable presence in these states. This probably motivates Senators Gardner and Daines to proclaim themselves as environmental stewards.

From the Rockies, let us move to the South. President Trump is an outspoken supporter of the fossil fuel industry with a 3-D approach: drill, dig, and deregulate.

However, in an unexpected 180 turn, President Trump imposed a moratorium (until 2032) on offshore oil and gas development along the Atlantic coast for a handful of states. In 2018, he exempted Florida, an important swing state in Presidential elections. Tourism is among the largest engines of Florida’s GDP growth, and apparently, tourists like to view the ocean without the embellishment of oil rigs.

Early this month, Georgia and South Carolina were added to the exempt list. Yesterday, North Carolina was included as well. And in making these announcements, President Trump shared the spotlight with the Republican Senators, who seem to be facing tough reelections.  

Again, the 2019 (and lifetime) LCV scores of these Senators do not support the profile of environmental champions. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) scores 21% (10%), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stands at 29% (13%), and Senator David Perdue (R-GA) at 14% (3%).

Both Georgia Senate seats are up for elections. LCV has not scored Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), who was appointed to the Senate in 2019 upon the resignation of Senator Johnny Isakson.

North Carolina is a purple state. Hence, the drilling moratorium makes political sense for both Presidential and Senate politics. But the moratorium in South Carolina and Georgia is revealing. Clearly, there is a sufficiently large constituency in these states that favors environmental protection.  

When do Environmental Issues Matter in Elections?

Citizens reward politicians when environmental protection creates local benefits – economic or recreational. Much of the political rhetoric around the Great American Outdoors Act or the offshore drilling ban emphasizes local benefits, not “saving the earth.”  

Environmental voters gain leverage in competitive electoral races. Even politicians with poor environmental records want to portray themselves as environmental stewards. Ironically, the leverage of environmental voters is less in the Deep Blue states of the West Coast or New England than in the Red-turning-Purple states of the South and the Rockies.

In our political system, all votes are not equal. Purple state voters have more leverage than Red and Blue state voters. Something to keep in mind when you move next.

Updated, October 6, 2020.

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