Environmental groups are pouring money into this year’s midterm elections like never before, hoping that Democratic victory of the House will place a check on President Donald Trump and his push to expand off-shore oil drilling, shrink national monuments and free industry from environmental constraints.
The League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of the nation’s green groups, announced Thursday it expects to spend more than $80 million on all races in the midterms, far more than the record $45 million it spent in 2016.
Pete Maysmith, a top strategist for the League of Conservation Voters, said his group is putting a particular focus on the House this year, expecting to spend at least $100,000 in 26 House races.
“We have the most anti-environmental president in history, combined with the most anti-environmental Congress in history,” said Maysmith, the league’s vice president of campaigns. “We can’t change the presidency in 2018, but we can change who runs the House.”
The environment hasn’t been a top-tier issue in a majority of House races this year. But a string of disasters — ranging from wildfires in the West to red tides in Florida — have elevated voters concerns over public health and created an opening for environmentalists. Candidates in the Carolinas, Florida and California have all addressed environmental issues that wouldn’t have resonated without recent natural disasters in each area.
In numerous House districts, the league is running television spots or digital ads that show a child breathing through an inhaler, overlaid with images of smokestacks or forests burning.
Some of the ads — including one leveled against U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas — also target Republicans for trying to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with preexisting health conditions. The attempt is to draw a link between environmental degradation and access to medical care, an issue that numerous polls show resonates with potential voters.
Some Republicans have pushed back against the league’s ad campaign, particularly in Southern California, where the group is targeting vulnerable GOP incumbents such as Dana Rohrabacher, Steve Knight and Mimi Walters, as well as Diane Harkey, who is hoping to replace Darrell Issa in the open 49th House seat.
The league’s ad against Rohrabacher, co-funded with Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA committee, reminds voters of the congressman’s past claim that climate change is “a fraud,” interspersed with images of wildfires, oil refineries and a young girl with breathing problems. “While fire and smoke choke our air, Dana Rohrabacher is radically opposed to efforts to fight climate change,” a narrator intones.
Dale Neugebauer, a spokesman for the Rohrabacher campaign, said voters should be suspicious of all the outside money.
“The level of spending is obscene,” he said. “Voters in the 48th district are rightly asking themselves why outside special interests and a New York City billionaire are pouring millions of dollars into attack ads smearing their congressman.”
Neugebauer also suggested environmentalists were being hypocritical in supporting Harley Rouda, Rohrabacher’s Democratic opponent, who was investing heavily in crude oil stocks as recently as 2017. “Apparently, LCV gives him a free pass on his profiteering in fossil fuels,” said Neugebauer in an email.
Overall, the league and its state affiliates expect to spend $30 million on federal races, $30 million on state elections and $8 million on ballot propositions. In Washington state, the group is a top contributor to a ballot measure that would create the nation’s first carbon fee on industry, providing $1.4 million to the Yes on Initiative 1631 campaign.
In addition, the group is spending $20 million through GiveGreen, a site that allows people to easily contribute directly to pro-environment candidates.
Environmentalists are also pouring money into a handful of U.S. Senate races, but there, they are largely playing defense for vulnerable Democratic incumbents, such as Jon Tester in Montana and Bill Nelson in Florida. The league and Environmental Defense Action Fund has spent more than $2.7 million against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Nelson’s opponent, labeling him “Red Tide Rick” and claiming that Scott’s cuts in environmental protection contributed to recent outbreaks of toxic red tide algae in Florida.
The Scott campaign has pushed back against the attacks, calling the league a “thinly veiled liberal group” that has misrepresented the governor’s record on the environment. That prompted the league and Maysmith to unleash another digital ad, rebutting Scott’s claim that red tides are “naturally occurring.” Many scientists say red tides can be amplified by nutrient runoff, including that coming from Florida’s cities, cattle industry and sugar farms.
Green groups have had little trouble fund raising the last two years. Since coming to office, the Trump administration has increased oil and gas fracking, rolled back Obama-era auto emissions standards, worked to downsize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. Those and other moves have alarmed environmentalists and swelled the campaign coffers of the conservation voters group, Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club and other groups.
Yet while raising money is easy, engaging voters is far more challenging. A Pew Research poll from September ranked the environment seventh on a list of issues that voters were concerned about, based on a survey of 1,700 adults. To better target its resources, the league commissioned surveys this summer to identify which Republicans could be vulnerable on environmental issues, and which themes might resonate with certain voters.
In California, ads from the League of Conservation voters emphasize climate change, because of relatively high public awareness of the issue. In Kansas and North Carolina, the focus is more on health care and health issues linked to air and water pollution.
Some polls suggest the environment is a high priority among some voters on a local level. A University of North Florida survey from September, for instance, found the environment among the top three issues for voters, along with education and health care.
Every fall, Chapman University surveys Americans on their worst fears for the coming year. In 2016, the top concerns were corrupt government officials followed a terrorist attack and “not having enough money for the future.” This year, corruption was also the top concern, but it was followed by “pollution of oceans” and “pollution of drinking water.”
Founded in 1969 by the environmentalist David Brower, the League of Conservation Voters claims to have more than two million members and publishes environmental scorecards of how lawmakers vote nationwide. It operates three campaign arms — a traditional political action committee, a Super PAC called the LCV Victory Fund and 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which does not have to disclose its donors.
As of Wednesday, the top donors to the LCV Victory Fund were Michael Bloomberg and Joshua Bekenstein, a co-chairman of Bain Capital. Two-thirds of the PAC’s fund raising to date, $24.4 million, came from donors giving $200 or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.