Lessons from Virginia

As Virginians await the final results of this year’s election, one fact has emerged as clear.  The more extreme – or less mainstream – the Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed at the polls.

This fact can be simply established by listing the three main Republican candidates’ ideological stances and comparing it to their popular vote tally.  The most extreme of the candidates was Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson, who was so extreme the other candidates didn’t want to mention him during their campaigns and balked at being associated with him.  He came in third on the list with 44.54 percent of the vote.  The least extreme candidate, Mark Obenshain for Attorney General, did the best (49.88 percent of the vote) and trails in a race so close that a recount is almost certain.

That oddly puts Ken Cuccinelli in the middle of the pack where extremism is concerned.  Yes that’s right, the darling of the Virginia tea party who attracted so much national attention for his far right views ranked second in extremism behind Jackson on a slate chosen at a convention dominated by activists.  His vote total was also middling at 45.23 percent of the vote, which was much closer than many thought it would be, but a poor enough showing that the race was decided before the end of the night.

There has been much speculation about the role that overarching issues such as the government shutdown or the health care launch may have played in the race for governor.  But the effect on the party preference of voters of any of these issues would have been felt up and down the ticket and therefore should not have altered the relative standings of the candidates.  So what did?

Let’s consider the margin that ended up separating Obenshain and Cuccinelli.  Terry McAuliffe did an effective job of framing Cuccinelli as the candidate that was out of step with the mainstream values of Virginia.   At least in Northern Virginia, three of the issues he used to support this “out-of-step” claim were woman’s issues, gun control, and the environment, the latter of which focused on Cuccinelli’s role as a climate change denier.    Whatever the importance of these issues to voters when taken individually, they were put together with the purpose of documenting the larger point that Cuccinelli was an extremist in the grip of far right ideology.

And Cuccinelli was guilty as charged on climate change.  He not only denied humans were contributing to climate change, but also opposed any actions to curb it.  What’s more, as attorney general he attacked the veracity of climate sciences research conducted at the University of Virginia for purely political reasons, even though the scientists had been independently cleared of any wrong doing.  Although these were favorable stances with his tea party base, they were definitely at odds with the popular opinion in Virginia, where 77 percent of citizens agree that past warming has been caused by humans and an overwhelming majority support actions on climate change (for example, 81 percent support reducing greenhouse gases from power plants).

In comparison, Obenshain consciously kept his distance from the tea party froth around Jackson and Cuccinelli, emphasizing an independent and bipartisan image in his campaign ads.  This is not to say that he is a moderate who supports real action on climate change – he’s not.  It only means that he knew better than to allow his opponent, Mark Herring, to easily use this issue or others to paint him into the same corner as the rest of the ticket.

The closer–than-expected result in the governor’s race has left unresolved the dispute between tea party Republicans and mainstream Republicans in the state and elsewhere.  The tea party feels their candidate was abandoned and could have won with more help, and the establishment believes they would not have needed so much help if the party had nominated a better positioned Republican, such as Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.  Of these two views, the establishment would seem to have the stronger argument – even if the race could have been won (which isn’t certain), it would have required diversion of scarce resources from other races where they were needed.  Wouldn’t it have been better not to have made that race so difficult to begin with?

The lesson for the Republican Party for their image in Virginia and elsewhere is simple.  Playing to the base comes at a price, as it often gets you out of step with a majority of the voters on a rack of important issues, including climate change.  This year in Virginia, the price of catering to the party base may have been more than the Republicans could afford.

Message to the Tea Party: Stop Trying to Drown Our Government

After the debacle of the government shutdown, it’s no surprise GOP lawmakers are pouncing on the botched rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act. Who knew IT troubles could provide such a big political advantage? Republicans have seized this opportunity to distract from their failed negotiations over budget and healthcare issues. And by plowing forward with their recriminations, they have highlighted a significant truth: there is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way kill the government.

Republican strategist Grover Norquist is famous for saying: “My goal is to cut the government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to a size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Now the Tea Party crowd is doing its best to squeeze what’s left down the drain.

They have tried to cut taxes and gut budgets so the government can’t operate properly. They have tried to handcuff agencies so they can’t do their jobs. And as if that wasn’t extreme enough, they went so far as to shut the whole thing down. But perhaps the most destructive thing they have done is to make Washington appear so dysfunctional that more people lose faith with the whole enterprise.

Yet poll after poll show that voters hate gridlock, but value what government provides—especially public health and environmental safeguards. In other words, there is a baby in that bathtub that is most definitely worth saving.

According to a survey conducted for NRDC by Public Policy Polling, for instance, almost two-thirds of voters opposed the near closure of the Environmental Protection Agency during the government shutdown. Why? Because ordinary citizens can’t force coal-fired power plants and heavy manufacturers to clean up their act. They count on the EPA to do the job—to stand between them and dangerous pollution and to make sure the air is clean enough to breathe and the water is safe enough to drink.

People don’t appreciate Tea Party types messing with these protections. While most Americans opposed the shutdown, even more didn’t like the fact that it furloughed EPA inspectors. This was true nationally among Latinos, in key states, in districts represented by once-moderate House Republicans, and even in House Speaker John Boehner’s home district.

And yet polluter friendly lawmakers—including some Democrats—continue to attack the EPA.  Recently Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) introduced a draft bill that would force the EPA to get approval from Congress in order to set limits on the amount of dangerous carbon pollution coming from power plants. This is a radical rethinking of how safeguards work in our country. It would allow politicians—instead of scientists and medical health professionals—to decide how much pollution is safe for our communities.

Today the NRDC Action Fund with NRDC released polling that solidly shows voters support candidates who will take action to reduce carbon pollution. This is an opportunity for candidates facing tough races ion 2014 to embrace EPA standards to protect the health and well-being of Americans. Doing the right thing by standing up to dirty polluters is not just good policy, it’s good politics.

The bad news? This is only the latest attempt of coal industry allies and Tea Party leaders to weaken government oversight. Over the past few years, House GOP lawmakers have voted more than 300 times to undermine public health and environmental safeguards. Most of these efforts have not become law, but they have taken up a lot of time and energy, and they feed into voters’ perceptions that Washington is full of bickering naysayers.

And this is where the Tea Party extremists could gain advantage: voters could start tuning out and distrusting government—including the branches and services and protections they value.

The best antidote to this apathy is to keep voting and keeping following your lawmakers’ records. Did they enter government service only to tear down the government? Do they routinely try to gut the EPA and other agencies that protect us from pollution? Do they talk about making government function better but try to cripple it at every turn? If so, then vote them out of office. A recent CNN/ORC International survey found that three-quarters of voters believe most GOP members of Congress shouldn’t be re-elected.

If voters don’t lose faith in the government between now and the mid-term elections, we could send the Tea Party a powerful message: Americans value government when it keeps our families safe and makes our lives better. And if they keep trying to drown it in the bathtub, we will act as the lifeguard and save it.

 

Undo New Carbon Rules? No Way.

Now that the government shutdown is over (for now) and debt default avoided (for now), the Tea Party extremists in Congress will likely get back to their more typical day jobs of denying climate change and trying to undermine environmental protection. In the midst of the shutdown we told you on our Facebook page  about legislation introduced by Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia that would, if enacted, undo recently proposed rules to limit carbon pollution at new coal-fired power plants.

CRA blog fb pic 10.22.13

The resolution, H.J. 64, was introduced pursuant to the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows for Congress to formally “disapprove” of major rules issued by executive agencies. Passage of a CRA resolution results in the rule not going into effect and prevents the agency from ever promulgating a substantially similar rule again. Keep in mind, agencies issue rules pursuant to the laws previously passed by Congress. And realize that McKinley’s legislative weapon of choice may only disapprove final rules, not mere proposed rules like the one released by EPA for public input.  But setting aside this obvious defect, if the McKinley resolution were to succeed, EPA’s hands would be tied in implementing a key part of the Clean Air Act’s direction to limit the harm of a dangerous air pollutant (carbon) because EPA would be prohibited from issuing a similar rule to limit carbon coming from new power plants.

While McKinley may be getting support from his coal industry supporters, it’s important for fans of a stable climate to keep in mind that this bill has little support outside of the extreme Tea Party wing of Congress and those with vested interests in building new, dirty coal plants. Here are a few reminders for representatives who might be considering sponsoring the McKinley resolution:

Americans of all political stripes want to ACT on climate. The most recent polling finds that 87 percent of Americans support some EPA action on climate change, including 78 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats.

  1. Doomed to fail. Congress has considered CRA resolutions that attempted to undermine climate action and the Clean Air Act recently. Each time a majority of senators has rejected these dangerous attempts to harm public health.
  2. President Obama cares about climate change. “Today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.” President Obama uttered these words in his June speech on climate change. The President has the authority to veto a CRA resolution. There is no way President Obama would participate in undermining something he explicitly directed EPA to do.

It’s time for Congress to get to work, solving the real problems that face this country. They should stop wasting time on efforts that are both unpopular and unlikely to succeed. The question for you, dear readers, is whether your representatives know how you feel on this issue.

 

 

A Reasonable Model for Clean Energy Leadership

In a week full of crazy Republican extremism, a common-sense moderate feels like a breath of fresh air. One of those welcome breezes is blowing out of Michigan, where Governor Snyder has made it clear that threats of a Tea Party primary challenge won’t distract him from doing what is best for his state.

That includes expanding renewable energy. Snyder has long been a supporter of clean energy investment, and said on his campaign website, “Michigan needs to be a leader in the innovative movement towards alternative and cleaner energy.” He has repeatedly called for raising the standard that requires Michigan utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2015.

A new study has confirmed that Michigan can easily hit that mark and go far beyond it.  State regulators released a report last week concluding that Michigan can meet a renewable energy standard of 30 percent by 2035.

Snyder could call for raising the standards once again. After all, clean energy solutions have been good for his state. More than 38,000 Michiganders worked assembling or building parts for fuel efficient cars in 2011 and 2,500 new jobs have been added to the list since then. About 1,000 new jobs have been announced in the Michigan wind industry since late 2011, and more will follow if the state increases the renewable energy standards.

Talk of wind power and clean energy standards doesn’t sit well with most climate-denying Tea Partiers. But it makes sense to a growing number of Republican officials. Roughly 75 percent of installed wind power comes from Republican districts. Red-state stalwart South Dakota produced nearly 25 percent of its electricity from wind power last year. North Dakota got nearly 15 percent of its energy from wind.

Kansas built more wind generation than all states except for California and Texas—a push that helped generate 12,000 jobs and brought in $3 billion in investment to the state. When ALEC and other conservative leaders tried to repeal Kansas’ clean energy standard, lawmakers beat them back because they know renewable energy projects are good for the state’s economy and communities. The Republican governor of Kansas, meanwhile, joined Republican governors from Iowa and Oklahoma to call for extending a production tax credit for wind power last year.

Across the country, Republican officials are standing up for clean energy because they know it delivers real benefits. Some leaders will invite Tea Party primary challenges as a result, but hopefully they will take the path of Snyder and say: bring it on.

Snyder seems to want to take back the Republican Party from the radical fringe. Some of his positions have alienated extremists and inspired some to recruit challengers, but their influence appears limited and Snyder remains unfazed. Instead, he is betting that his brand of moderate Republican leadership will take hold. “Hopefully, I’m a reasonable model for people to look at across the country,” he said in a recent interview.

Even with his support of renewable energy, it is critical that Governor Snyder also acknowledges the huge potential for increasing Michigan’s investment in cost-effective energy efficiency. It is the cheapest, cleanest, fastest way to meet future energy needs, and in Synder’s words, a “no regrets” investment.

Clean energy and energy efficiency offer Snyder a way to show how reasonable he is by championing a stronger clean energy standard for his state and smart clean energy policies for the nation. After all, investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency isn’t a red or blue state issue; it’s an American opportunity.

 

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.