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News ::
An Unhealthy Electoral Environment (english)
02 May 2003
Environmentalists face the most opposition from the Club for Growth, which picks candidates based solely on "tax cuts and growth." Founded by the presidents of the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative magazine National Review, they have won 17 of 19 House and Senate races since 1999 and raised more than $10 million in 2002 alone.
Condensed from "Getting Out the Vote"
by Jim Motavalli, editor of

For the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Earth Day is Election Day. "You can invest all you want in public education campaigns," says Scott Stoermer, LCV's communications director, "but if the men and women on Capitol Hill aren't making the right decisions about America's future, then public education does you no good. You have to get down, dirty and political."

The election of George W. Bush has been a disaster for the environment. Since elected, Bush has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, weakened wetlands protection, gutted mining restrictions on federal lands, called for increased logging, refused to endorse higher automobile fuel-efficiency standards, sued California for enacting tough air laws, repealed a law that would have lowered power-plant emissions, and offered tax "reform" that allows an enormous spectrum of businesses to deduct the full cost of large SUVs in the first year of purchase.

Not only is Bush working on many fronts to roll back environmental laws, he is also appointing anti-environmental judges whose legacy will be with us for decades. Any group can express their outrage at this, but only those that are willing to give up the right to receive tax-free donations can directly campaign against Bush and his cronies. And given the ever-earlier start date of campaigns, the election cycle is already well underway.

Lobbying Groups

Since the law that created political action committees (PACs) was passed in 1944, direct financial contributions to candidates have become a crucial revenue stream. By the end of the 1998 election cycle, there were nearly 4,000 registered PACs (up from 608 in 1974) that contributed $220 million to federal candidates. Some of the largest PACs are run by union and trial lawyer interests, though corporate money overwhelms these sources when it's added together.

Although special interests that support anti-environmental candidates donate the overwhelming amount of political money, some large PACs are environmentally related. In 2000, EMILYS List, whose female candidates frequently vote in favor of the environment, had more than $5 million in cash on hand and was the fifth-largest PAC in the U.S. The League of Conservation Voters' Action Fund PAC was ranked 17th in the nation with $1,157,309. The Sierra Club's PAC was 45th with $538,203.

Another electoral tool is the "527" organization -- "Stealth PACs." These groups have been able to receive anonymous donations in any amount without disclosing the source. Reform advocates such as Common Cause have campaigned to force these groups to identify their officers and large contributors. The good news is that the passage of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill requires disclosure of 527 gifts of more than $1,000 when used to fund campaign broadcasting. The bad news is that it will face a vociferous series of court challenges.

Reforming Campaign Finance

Until the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill, many groups on both the left and right used 527 organizations as a conduit to pay for independent television commercials that worked for but did not specifically endorse candidates. According to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, "By 2000, more than 40 percent of the 880,172 campaign ads that aired in federal races in the nation's top 75 media markets were sponsored not by candidates but by interest groups and parties."

Because the new law requires third-party organizations to channel advertising funds through PACs in hard money donations, as well as 527 groups to publicly disclose financing for aired advertising, critics on both sides say these new restrictions will favor incumbents. But the real threat to campaign finance reform comes from Senator Mitch McConnell(R-KY) and dozens of groups such as the Republican National Committee, the California Democratic Party, AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NRA, who have joined in a lawsuit opposing the law on free speech grounds. The matter will likely be decided by the Supreme Court.

The State of the Environmental Lobby

According to the website Opensecrets (, none of the top 100 political campaign donors in the 2002 election cycle were environmentally oriented -- the oil and gas industry made more than $21 million in contributions (only $7 million from individuals) supporting Republican candidates over Democrats four-to-one -- a rough indication of their environmental stance.

Regrettably, voters are largely unaware about the environmental positions taken by candidates they support. For instance, most Bush voters claim to support the environment when polled. Says LCV's Callahan, "Environmental protection is so universally embraced that voters assume their representatives are doing the right thing, even when they are not."

Wade Greene, advisor to the Rockefeller family philanthropies, points out another unfortunate fact: Environmentalists don't vote any more often than average citizens do and in 2002, green groups were outspent and outmaneuvered. "The Republicans got rolling earlier, had more money-as usual-and also had more of their grassroots strategy worked out early and put systematically in place. The result is that the question of who is the more environmental got very muddied."

Sierra's Strategy

Allen Mattison, a member of the Sierra Club's media team, says that 2000 was probably the last year in which candidates could openly campaign against the environment. In 2002, low-LCV scorers such as Wayne Allard(CO), Gordon Smith(OR), Norm Coleman(MN), and John Sununu(NH) campaigned as pro-environment, partly because of Frank Luntz who advises Republicans to paint themselves green even if they are rabidly anti-environmental. Says Mattison, "Our job is to communicate to the American people that those candidates were lying when they claimed to be environmentalists."

The Sierra Club has also started using strategies picked up from their conservative opponents like "list enhancement" to get green voters to the polls. The process involves comparing environmental membership lists with voter records and identifying activists who haven't bothered to step inside the voting booth. "It can make quite a difference to identify likely green voters and work on getting them to the polls," says Greene.

Green Republicans?

The fact is, environmental Republicans are becoming an endangered species on Capitol Hill, and conservatives are working overtime in Republican primaries to ensure that those remaining lose their jobs. Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) America lists four Congresspeople among its membership of 2,000, with chapters in seven states. It has a paid staff of two.

REP President Martha Marks founded the group after meeting two other Republican women at an endangered species conference in 1995. She cites the Republicans' historically green tradition, represented by Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In 2002, REP endorsed two Republican primary candidates for Congress, State Representative Kelly Barlean(WA) and Jim Fallin(NY) -- neither won.

Hope in the West

The generally dark picture of the 2002 election is brighter if one looks only at the western states. Democratic, pro-environment candidates won several open congressional seats there, and picked up three governorships-in New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona because 10 western states have grassroots conservation voter groups.

As High Country News reported in November, analysts credit the 9,000-member Arizona LCV with putting Janet Napolitano -- who campaigned to preserve the desert from runaway development -- in the governor's office. The Oregon LCV, which spent $290,000 in PAC money for environmentalist Ted Kulongoski, may have made the difference in a very close race. Colorado Conservation Voters spent $100,000 in PAC money on seven legislative races, and won three of them. In Montana, environmental voter groups helped defeat eight polluter-friendly state representatives.

"Pro-Growth" Opponents

Environmentalists are hardly working in a vacuum. Groups like the Christian Coalition (CC) prepare scorecards of their own, and their scores are usually the exact opposite of LCV's. Even though CC is not an environmentally based group, it almost invariably gives its highest scores to politicians who are disastrous for the environment.

The most direct opponent of LCV and other green electoral strategists is the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, which like CC is not environmentally oriented but picks its candidates based solely on their position on "tax cuts and growth." Founded in 1999 by the presidents of the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative magazine National Review, among others, the Club for Growth achieved victory in 17 of the 19 House and Senate races it worked on. In 2002, it raised and spent more than $10 million.

The Future

It's obvious that environmentalists will have to think more strategically in the upcoming electoral cycles if they want to avoid a repeat of the 2000 and 2002 results. The conservation voter efforts taking place in 30 states are a good start, but they would benefit considerably from a major infusion of cash and volunteer talent. Considering the trillions of dollars in cleanup costs resulting from the policies our politicians are voting for right now-not to mention the irretrievable loss of our natural heritage-an investment in conservation would be money well spent.
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