Hobby Lobby, Climate Change, and the GOP’s Women Problem

More than 200 women brought their children to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to clean up the air pollution that causes climate change. The event was called a “Play-in for Climate Action”—you can’t expect all those kids to stay still for a traditional “sit-in”—and included a press conference with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Around the same time, GOP lawmakers in the House were busy drafting a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing the very thing those mothers want: clean up carbon pollution from power plants so their children have a better future.

Welcome to the latest battle in the Tea Party’s war on women. This conflict isn’t getting as much attention as the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, but it could play a significant role in who wins and loses the midterm elections.

Republican and Democratic candidates have already worked the Hobby Lobby case into stump speeches, fundraising appeals, and attack ads. Yet few people will vote on the Hobby Lobby ruling alone. Most voters cast ballots based on a cluster of issues that matter most to them.

One negative story about a Tea Party position that hurts women would not turn the midterm tide. But these days, the stories are mounting. GOP candidates are alienating women voters on a host of issues, from reproductive health to equal pay to climate change.

When did climate change become a women’s issue? When women made it clear they care deeply about it. Women in battleground states understand (by a margin of 72 percent to 19 percent) that we have a moral obligation to future generations to make the air safer to breathe and the climate more stable. Climate change increases smog and contributes to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. If we don’t act now, the next generation will pay a steep price, and most women want children to inherit a brighter future, not one plagued by unchecked climate hazards.

And yet nearly every single Republican candidate running for office in the past few years—from the presidential level on down—has ignored, denied, or belittled the threat of climate change.  Right now, GOP leaders are attacking the EPA’s new “Clean Power Plan.” This plan would unleash wind and solar power, boost energy and cost savings, and finally hold power plants accountable for the enormous amounts of carbon pollution they spew into our air.

Blocking this kind of climate action isn’t just bad policy; it’s bad politics.

Women are one of the emerging voting blocs that will matter most in this election, along with Latinos and young people. Many female voters are likely to view Tea Party stance on climate change as yet another position that turns them off.

Republicans can’t afford that. In the 2012 presidential race, women favored the Democratic ticket by 11 percentage points.  Unmarried women voted for President Obama over Governor Romney by 67 percent. Those single women, it turns out, could be the soccer moms of this election—top Democratic strategists are already trying to appeal to them.

Some Republicans may be listening to what women want. Over the past few months, GOP leaders have hedged their climate bets; they have moved from outright denial to modest demurral. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Governor Rick Scott (R-FL), and Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL) have all said they don’t have the scientific background to assess the risks of climate change. This hardly constitutes a bold approach to a matter of national security, but it does suggest some Republicans realize that climate denunciation is a losing position.

Candidates who stand for climate action, meanwhile, can cast themselves as champions of clean air, public health, good jobs, and a brighter future for our children—a set of issues that appeal to many women voters.



Cantor Can’t

Eric Cantor went down in a surprise defeat Tuesday night to a tea party unknown, David Brat, upsetting the Congressional order. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of this fate, but not for the reasons he suffered it.  His lifetime environmental score of 4% should earn him scorn but he may be about to be replaced with a representative who might proudly sport a zero rating.

What are the lessons to be learned from this race? For the Republican Party, the erroneous and overlearned response could well be the need to bow even further to the extremism of the tea party movement. For the environment this would mean more denialism about the existence of climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence, instead of coming to the table for solutions.

Overreaction by the GOP would be especially curious in light of the string of primary victories by so-called establishment Republicans in Senate races in places like Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina.  If the tea party’s wins from 2010 were considered to be episode one in this series, then this year’s episode two would definitely be called, “The Establishment Strikes Back.”

Yet overreaction could well be the order of the day.  For now safely perched in a politically safe and weirdly gerrymandered House majority, the far right wing of the Republican party continues to push for an extreme agenda that many establishment Republicans believe hampers their ability to win control of the White House and the Senate.  Frankly, allowing more progressive views on the environmental matters within the party would be the smartest path forward, and was the case before the rise of the tea party.  But I’m certainly not arguing that Cantor would have done better in the race if he had been better on the environment.  I’m just saying for establishment Republicans to conclude that they should not be better on the environment generally as a result of this race would be a serious error.

So what is the difference between tea party and the GOP establishment these days? Not much on policy, at least not since almost every moderate Republican member of Congress has given up or been driven out of the party. It seems to be mostly style, in the sense of an insistence by one side on a purity of position and a staunch resistance to working with others to get things done.  Still it makes a big difference to be at least reasonable and not radical. Or as Peter King, who’s no liberal, observed about Cantor’s defeat, “I don’t know where we go now as a party.  I’m very concerned that we may go all the way to the right, following Ted Cruz and the shutdown congressman, and marginalizing us as a responsible governing party.”

Cantor’s defeat can mostly be understood as an inattentive effort by a politician whose ambitions lay elsewhere.  If there was a policy issue that decided this race, it may have been immigration, where Cantor’s opponent accused him of supporting “amnesty” for his work on a Republican version of reform.  The party has struggled to construct a viable national strategy to attract the support of minorities and Latinos in particular, but a National Republican Committee proposal to do that has not taken hold. The same problem persists for the party among young people and women.

Yet the party continues to cut itself off from these groups with its policy agenda, including hostility to action on one of the most important issues of the day – clean air and climate change. Despite reams of polling data proving the support among these demographic groups for action on climate change, the tea party has maintained its choke hold on this issue.

Cantor can’t be the template for the GOP establishment if they want to reshape their national politics.  Instead of learning the wrong lesson about this race, they should master the proof contained in this polling. And it wouldn’t hurt for them to reexamine the irrefutable scientific proof behind climate change at the same time.

Ignoring Cancer

A new mantra in the politics of climate change is reemerging, and it’s not good. In the last few weeks, random elected officials began proclaiming “they aren’t qualified” enough to know if climate change is man-made.

This morning Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said: “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

Earlier this week when asked if he believes in the man-made influence on climate change Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) said: “I’m not a scientist.”

Both can thank Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL) for starting this mantra back in 2009 when he said “I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to make that decision.”

Although Senator Rubio has hedged a bit lately as he (or his pollsters) realize that to become President he’s going to need a big coalition of supporters, most of whom will believe climate change is in part man-made.

These kinds of statements may just be clever attempts to avoid the question, but if they mean it, we should all have concerns about whether these people are really fit for office.  After all, elected officials are decision makers who are asked to vote everyday on issues where they have no expertise.  That is why they hold hearings with experts, why they hire experienced staff that does their research, and why they should take the time to understand a topic.  I’ve never heard them say they weren’t qualified to vote on sanctions for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because “I am not a physicist.” Or I can’t decide if the CDC should have more funding to research bird flu because “I am not a doctor.” Or I can’t weigh in on universal pre-K or the Common Core because “I don’t have a doctorate in education.”

The fact that key GOP leaders are deploying this dodge shows that the age of denial is over. The majority of voters realize that climate change is a real threat, and they want leaders to deal with it, not pretend it doesn’t exist. But the Tea Party crowd hasn’t received the memo yet, so GOP leaders who want to appeal to that base have to be coy and demur the science. And while these lawmakers may not be scientists, they can rely upon the work of the 97 percent of scientists who have concluded that climate change is caused by human activity.

Let’s follow their logic in a practical application in your own life. If a doctor told you that you have cancer and you needed to seek treatment, would you tell the doctor you’re not qualified to talk about treatment options and move on with your day?  No, you would do research, maybe get a second opinion and educate yourself so you could seek the best treatment.

Our world needs leaders who take climate change as seriously as they would a diagnosis of cancer.  It sounds dire – because it is dire.  Countries will disappear, poverty will rise, and the health of our children will suffer.  We have a moral obligation to address climate change.  Pleading ignorance is not a compelling leadership strategy. We need lawmakers who will inform themselves about the threats facing our communities and our nation.  Speaker Boehner, Governor Scott, and Senator Rubio need to become qualified to have a discussion and then lead.  That is what they were elected to do and we are running out of time to act.



New Latino Polling Provides Roadmap to Victory for 2014 Candidates

As we kick off a midterm-election year, candidates around the country are trying to figure out how to attract coveted Latino voters. A new survey released today offers a crystal clear answer. The issue that matters most to these voters after immigration reform is climate change.

Nine in ten Latinos want the nation to take action to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change, according to the survey done by Latino Decisions for NRDC and Voces Verdes. When it comes to government action specifically, eight in ten want President Obama to reduce the carbon pollution that is driving climate change.

This is a landslide of support for climate action, and smart candidates will take note. Latinos represent the largest segment of new voters outside of young people. Twelve million Latinos voted in 2012—10 percent of the electorate—and that is expected to double by 2030.

Most voters in the electorate have already picked a side. There are very few opportunities for political parties to find new members.  But a large portion of the Latino community is still up for grabs, and candidates are eager to recruit them.

Sure, conventional political wisdom tells us Cuban-Americans living in Florida are likely to identify with the GOP, and families newly settled from Mexico tend to vote Democratic. But more Latino voters are registering to vote every year, and they come from a broad array of backgrounds, community ties, and political views. And where climate is concerned, this poll found that a majority of Latino Republicans support fighting climate change and the president’s climate action plan.

Every political consultant worth their smart phone is trying to guess how Latino voting trends will play out. Will Latinos create a solid voting bloc similar to African Americans and Native Americans who typically back Democrats? Or will Latinos behave like White voters and split and segment?

We don’t know where the patterns will take us, and so there is a mad dash to court everyone at once. The new survey results confirm that candidates who champion climate action and environmental protection will definitely turn heads.

In some races, these climate-focused voters could help carry the elections. North Carolina, for instance, is home to one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. Senator Kay Hagen is running for reelection is very close race, but her track record of support for wind and solar power and her consistent backing of carbon reductions could appeal to the huge majority of Latino voters who care more about climate action than any other issue after immigration.

Latinos feel strongly that taking action against climate change is part of creating a brighter, more hopeful future for their children. It’s part of their pursuit of the American dream. A candidate who grounds that dream in clean energy jobs, strong carbon limits, and healthier air will attract a majority of voters—and not just Latinos.


Can the Environment Save the Republican Party?

The Republican Party is primed for success in 2014. In addition to benefitting from redistricting wizardry, the party has history on its side: off-year elections give opposition parties the clear lead, especially in the second term of a lame duck president.

Yet the GOP has failed to turn these advantages into real gains. It may be winning battles, but it is losing the war because it keeps eroding its voter appeal.

It has turned off young voters with leaders who routinely belittle the severity of climate change, like when Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) told a town hall meeting that “global warming is a total fraud.”

It has alienated women with candidates like Colorado’s Ken Buck who said people should vote for him “because I do not wear high heels.” It has angered Latino voters with lawmakers like Representative Steve King (R-IA) who said that for every Latino valedictorian, there are 100 more hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.

And it has even turned off one of the most reliable voting blocs in the country: senior citizens. In 2011, 43 percent of seniors said they viewed Republicans in a favorable light, but now only 28 percent do, according to a poll by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. Maybe voting 40 times to undue Obamacare had something to do with the decline.

Being the Party of No may get the extremist blood pumping and help win individual primaries, but it doesn’t offer much in the form of leadership or vision for the future.

As an environmental advocate fighting for climate action, I suppose I should welcome the listlessness of a group that promotes climate paralysis. But as an American citizen, I know our democracy functions best when it has two vibrant parties jostling with one another and staking out common ground.

To become vibrant once again, the GOP has to stop featuring the craziest voices in its choir and start singing a tune that appeals to more voters. The environment is a good place to start.

This might sound shocking in the age of climate denial, but the truth is that clean air and clean water don’t observe party lines. They benefit all Americans, and poll after poll shows American voters value them. A Pew poll released earlier this year showed 79% of people surveyed were worried about the pollution in their drinking water.  The same poll found 70% of people worried about air pollution.

Wise Republicans have recognized this through the years, from President Teddy Roosevelt preserving our shared natural heritage to President George H.W. Bush helping to strengthen the Clean Air Act in 1990 and launch the cap and trade program to reduce acid rain.

Since the rise of the Tea Party, however, environmental protections are often cast as government overreach instead of what they really are: the safeguards that stand between your family and the polluter down the street. No matter what your ideological persuasion is, chances are you don’t want your children or parents breathing more smog or swimming in sewage.

This is the fundamental appeal of environmental issues. They are local, and if all politics are local, then calling on a nearby industrial plant to clean up its waste and making sure the state’s beaches are clean enough to keep the tourist dollars coming will generate political momentum.

It might also bring back some women voters, who care so deeply about the health of our families, and maybe even some Latino voters who routinely rank environmental safeguards as a priority. These are good groups to get on your side, because they will pound the pavement for you: the two largest groups of volunteers in Obama’s 2012 reelection army were women and Latinos.

The environment can be a bridge builder for the GOP, but only if it makes room for moderate leaders who have championed environmental safeguards in the past—leaders like Sherry Boehlert and Mike Castle and even Fred Upton before he began pandering to the Tea Party in 2010. If the GOP wants to shore up its broad-based appeal instead of living off the rage of a dwindling group, it will listen to its own clean water and clean air voices once again.