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Midterm Madness

2022 Could Have Been the Climate Change Election—Except Democrats Don’t Want to Talk About It

Economic issues have dominated this year’s campaigns. But talking candidly about climate change could hold the key to a majority in Congress.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto speaks at a podium.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto speaks at a campaign rally for Nevada Democrats at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas on November 1. With a week until the midterm elections, both Masto and Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak hold narrow leads over their Republican opponents.

In a different world, we could be referring to 2022 as the “Climate Midterms.” The top two fastest-warming cities in the country, Reno and Las Vegas, are both in Nevada, where a crucial election could determine which party controls the Senate. In Washington and Colorado, which have been greatly affected by recent wildfires, Democratic senators are facing surprisingly stiff reelection races. Miami, the “most vulnerable” coastal city in the world, has a competitive House race where the Republican incumbent acknowledges the threat of climate change on her campaign website.

But despite the existential threat posed by climate change, and its relevance to several key races, the issue has been largely absent from politicians’ closing arguments to voters. That generally seems to be in keeping with voter priorities: A recent Gallup poll found that 49 percent of registered voters said the economy would be “extremely important” to their vote, followed by 42 percent highlighting abortion as extremely important. Only 26 percent of registered voters said climate change was extremely important. (However, when broken down by party affiliation, climate change was ranked as extremely important by 49 percent of Democrats, compared to 22 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans.)

“It obviously is not an issue that has dominated the headlines or been a top-tier issue,” said Pete Maysmith, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, noting the primacy of economic and abortion messaging in many campaigns. But he also noted that action on climate change has not been a line of attack for Republicans the way it was in the 2010 election cycle, when GOP candidates hammered Democrats after a House vote on a then-controversial cap-and-trade bill. “It’s not a point of attack the way it has been in the past because the politics of climate change have evolved,” Maysmith contended.

Still, climate change is a more salient issue for Democratic voters than Republicans. In an October Washington Post/ABC News poll, 79 percent of Democrats said climate change is at least very important to their vote. Moreover, Black and Hispanic Americans were more likely than white Americans to say that climate change was important to their vote; communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards. An October Axios/Ipsos Latino poll found that climate change was the fourth-biggest concern for Latinos, with 25 percent of those polled saying it was one of the most worrying issues.

This data suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom that candidates should focus solely on “kitchen table” economic issues, talking about climate change could help boost turnout for Democrats. But given the nuances of individual elections, that rhetoric may be most effective if it is tailored to the particular races they are trying to win and the voters they are hoping to convince. Black voters in particular have historically been a core constituency for Democrats, and the party is desperately trying to appeal to Latino voters swinging to the right. Some organizations appear to recognize the salience of the issue for voters across demographics. In September, the progressive-leaning Latino Victory Fund launched the “Vote Like a Madre” voter mobilization campaign, specifically targeting Latina voters in southwestern states around the issue of climate change.

Electioneering naturally invites finger-pointing and second-guessing, particularly during the first midterm after a new president is elected, which almost always sees major losses for the president’s party. Some Democrats have already begun airing their complaints about the party’s failure to coalesce around a specific message. There is also some evidence that voters don’t even know what congressional Democrats have done. A new poll by Data for Progress found that only 39 percent of voters knew the Inflation Reduction Act—Democrats’ recently approved signature bill that, among other things, amounts to the biggest investment in climate change in congressional history—had even passed. Moreover, only 32 percent of voters knew about the bill’s provisions to provide tax credits for clean energy production.

The people who care most about climate change may also be more likely to sit this election out. A July poll by the Environmental Voter Project found that unlikely voters in the key states of Pennsylvania and Nevada were twice as likely as likely voters to list climate as the single most important factor when choosing a candidate. In an effort to counter this kind of trend, the League of Conservation Voters recently teamed up with Climate Power Action in August to launch a $12 million campaign targeted at mobilizing voters who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, are “uniquely mobilized” by climate issues, and “are in jeopardy of not showing up and voting for pro-climate Democrats in 2022.” The campaign involves informing voters about the Inflation Reduction Act and then highlighting how their senator or representative on the ballot supported it. “Then we’re making sure to say, ‘OK, now it’s your turn to do something for Catherine Cortez Masto,’ for example. And that something is obviously to come out [and vote],” Maysmith said, referring to the Democratic senator from Nevada and one of the most vulnerable incumbents this cycle.

The specific language used to discuss climate change, however, may determine how effective the issue is in mobilizing voters. Jamie McLeod-Skinner, the Democratic nominee in a competitive district in Oregon, has made addressing climate change part of her pitch to voters since the beginning of her campaign. The more progressive McLeod-Skinner defeated incumbent Representative Kurt Schrader, a moderate Democrat, in the primary; ratings analysts put her race from toss-up to leaning Republican.

McLeod-Skinner told me that messaging was critical: While the terminology of “climate change” may be widely accepted in more urban areas, the more conservative voters in the vast rural swathes of the district might feel more comfortable talking about its effects, such as wildfires and droughts.

“Wildfire does not check party affiliation when it’s burning down homes. So this is an issue everyone’s concerned about,” McLeod-Skinner said. “I’ve met folks who hate Obamacare but love the ACA. And it’s that same thing with climate. There are people who don’t really talk about it as climate change—they see that as a buzzword.… But if you talk about wildfire, and flooding, and drought, that has impacted our families across Oregon.”

McLeod-Skinner also connected environmental issues to economic ones. “Here in Oregon, building out a twenty-first-century energy grid that includes a lot more renewable energy is an opportunity for us to address climate change and the climate crisis, as well as stimulate our economy and get some of those good paying jobs back on track,” she said.

Of course, messaging on climate change may vary state by state; McLeod-Skinner said that Democrats should not “assum[e] there’s generic messaging that applies across the country,” but rather should ensure that “candidates have the opportunity to speak to issues in a way that their constituents and their voters can can hear and understand.”

In Alaska, for example, Democratic Representative Mary Peltola has highlighted the threat of climate change while also identifying as “pro-resource development” and calling for “energy independence”—typically code for more drilling. Gubernatorial races are also important in determining state environmental policy: In the wake of Hurricane Ian, for example, Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist has highlighted his proposals to tackle climate change in the face of environmental disasters of increasing severity.

Back in the critical Senate race in Nevada, Cortez Masto has also emphasized environmental and energy policy in her campaign, and her ideas have attracted some high-profile supporters—including family members of her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt.

“Senator Cortez Masto was pivotal in recently securing over $3.4 billion in wildfire prevention, suppression, and restoration activities in the national bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Laxalt’s relatives said in a statement in October, also highlighting her work to combat drought in the state. “She has even requested surrounding states to engage in comprehensive conservation efforts that are currently in place across Nevada. Catherine has worked tirelessly to maintain the splendor of Nevada’s landscape.”

It is still uncertain whether voters motivated by climate change will turn out on Tuesday. But if they do, and if candidates who particularly highlighted environmental issues manage to squeak out victories, it could pave the way for future campaigns. The adage “all politics is local” may prove particularly true; whether wildfires in Oregon, drought in Nevada, or hurricanes in Florida, climate change affects all voters. It could mobilize them as well.