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This Election's Top Donor Is an Environmentalist. So Where Are the Results?

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Environmental groups have spent an unprecedented $85 million on the 2014 midterms. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has donated at least $50 million to green groups through his super PAC NextGen Climate Action, making him the single-largest known donor this election cycle. (Unlike conservative activists Charles and David Koch’s contributions to political nonprofits—Steyer’s donations are fully disclosed.)

And yet, it appears that all this money failed to make the environment a top priority. “Climate change is like an afterthought in the wider message, which is a tacit admission that on its own it doesn't move the dial," Republican strategist Josh Penry told Reuters. “It is very difficult to find an issue that voters place lower on the list than climate change,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres told the New York Times. “It vies with gay marriage and campaign finance reform as the least important issue. Most voters care about jobs, economic growth, health care and immigration.”

Green groups will also likely fail to elect candidates sympathetic toward climate issues. Half of green groups' $85 million has gone to Senate races (in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Alaska, North Carolina, and Michigan) where Democrats might lose. If Senator Mitch McConnell’s becomes Majority Leader, one of his top priorities is environmental deregulation. So it’s easy to call environmentalists’ strategy this year a total failure.

But the calculus is not that simple. Climate change may not be the top issue this cycle. Green groups may not see their preferred candidates winning any close contests. But the unprecedented spending has kept Republicans off-balance. And it has shown that environmentalists are adapting their message for an electorate that is growing.

Though not the issue, the environment was an issue in many races, especially in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Florida—and candidates were forced to at least acknowledge it. During the Colorado campaign, for example, NextGen ran ads like this one, which begins with a narrator saying, “He thinks he knows better than the scientists, NASA, and the U.S. military on climate change”: 

In 2010, Cory Gardner argued that he didn't think “humans are causing [climate] change to the extent that’s been in the news. But at a recent debate, Gardner seemed to change course, saying that “pollution contributes” to climate change. And he reversed himself again a day later, refusing to answer a yes or no question about it.

Scott Brown, who’s running for Senate in New Hampshire, also changed his mind on global warming. In 2010, his position was a flat-out “uh, no” on man-made climate change. He said at an October debate that climate change is “a combination of manmade and natural.”

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has been reluctant to admit his position on climate change, dodging a question about humans’ impact this spring by answering, “I’m not a scientist.” In a more recent debate, however, Scott tried a new tack on climate change. Instead of avoiding the question, he cited Jesus. Even GOP strategists pointed out the limited value of the “I’m not a scientist” dodge: One GOP adviser called this no more than a "temporary band-aid" on how to handle an issue with no easy answer. 

The creativity of the environmentalists’ campaign is an additional—if limited—sign of realism from the environmentalists this cycle. As Reuters and Talking Points Memo have pointed out, not all of environmentalists’ money has gone to ads about the environment. Sometimes, when NextGen did focus on the environment, it was indirect. There were attack ads going after candidates for their connections to the Kochs, or defending oil tax breaks, or their opposition to an energy-efficiency bill. This one highlighted Brown’s opposition to a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill from his opponent Senator Jeanne Shaheen:

The first ad NextGen ran for a Senate race went after Iowa’s Joni Ernst pledge not to raise taxes, even on corporate tax breaks: 

This indirect approach from green groups was smart because it helps environmentalists broaden their reach beyond a limited cross-section of voters, who don’t see environmental issues as having to do with saving money on their energy bills or how much they spend on gas.

NextGen insists it hasn’t veered from its original mission with these more varied ads. “It is often the case that when a candidate is on the wrong side of science, they are likely on the wrong side of a number of issues critical to voters, and we will continue to draw this contrast between the candidates,” spokesperson Suzanne Henkels said in an e-mail.

While the majority of the electorate is not primarily concerned with the environment (in a Pew survey, less than half of respondents listed climate change as a top security threat ), NextGen and similar groups may have appealed to an important demographic with their strategies this cycle. Women, African Americans, and Latinos tend to care more about the environment—a demographic that The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication calls the Rising American Electorate. The project also found that Hispanics and African Americans prefer candidates who call for climate action. The economy and security may still come first for voters, but if NextGen can mobilize turnout among these demographics, they may see the benefits down the line.

In the presidential election two years ago, environmental funding was miniscule, especially compared to fossil fuel interests. The League of Conservation Voters was the biggest environmental spender in 2012 at $15 million. (The conservative Americans for Prosperity, by comparison, spent $37 million.) Environmental issues barely registered. Activists were disappointed when President Barack Obama failed to even bring up climate change in campaign speeches. Their petitions to urge candidates to discuss it hardly registered.

This time around, things feel different. Greener candidates aren’t likely to win tomorrow, but as long as they aren’t running in coal country, Democrats on the 2014 ballot seem to feel comfortable bringing up climate change and sometimes even attacking their opponents for denying it. If this cycle helped position Democratic candidates in a more aggressively, then Steyer did his job—for 2016. That means climate change is sticking around, even if candidates take a while to catch up.