Have Climate and Clean Energy Advocates Invested Wisely in the Midterm Elections? A Look Ahead

November 6, 2018

The 2018 midterm elections will be memorialized as among the most contentious in modern history. Charges and counter-charges of racism, lies, corruption, and sexual predation are not all the lead up to November’s balloting will be remembered for, however. The 2018 elections are also proving to be the most expensive midterms to date. (See Figure 1)

By any standard, we’re talking big bucks here. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), by last count, has raised over $69 million in his effort to defeat Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). In defense of his seat, Cruz has raised over $40 million.

Democratic House candidates have raised nearly $1 billion compared to the Republican’s $637 million. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates total spending by the parties, candidates, and political action committees will be in excess of $5.2 billion by the time the midterms are over.

Conspicuous by their presence are climate-defending organizations and individuals. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) is expecting to drop $60 million into Democratic campaign coffers in state and Congressional races. Move.Org Political Action has raised $25.5 million and spent $21 million on Congressional races through the middle of October.


Figure 1

Organizations like the Environmental Defense Action Fund and NRDC have also been active contributors to candidates this election cycle, albeit at lower amounts. The EDF Action Fund has contributed to both Democrats, e.g., Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Republicans, e.g., Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)

Individual billionaire contributors who recognize the potentially catastrophic consequences of the climate’s changing have been speaking out on the need to combat global warming and shelling out tens of millions of dollars to elect people who might be willing to do something about it. Tom Steyer, the founder and President of NextGen America, has donated more than $51 million to the cause. Steyer sits at number 2 on the list of all individual contributors in the 2017-18 election cycle. At the number 4 spot on that list is the former mayor of New York City. Bloomberg is in for a bit over $38 million in total donations. Although both Steyer and Bloomberg are targeting issues in addition to climate, these are mind-numbing sums compared to a few short years ago. Both billionaires have given only to Democrats.


Figure 2

The alternative energy industry has weighed in with money this election cycle as well. The top contributors in the industry are listed in Figure 2.  In total, the sector has donated close to $4 million split between Democrats (51%) and Republicans (48%).

It is hardly mystical why environmental and clean energy dollars have been flowing into mostly Democratic accounts. The Donald and the Trump-Republican Party are harmful—make that horrifically harmful—to the environment. Climate defenders and alternative energy companies have ample reason to invest in Democratic candidates with tariffs, soon to be idled tax credits, rollbacks and rescissions of nearly the entirety of Obama’s climate legacy, the pursuit of opportunities for a dying coal industry in defiance of the market, and anticipated attacks on environmental legislation dating back to Nixon’s time in office, e.g., the Endangered Species Act.

The $64K question now is what will be the return on these investments to the environment and the alternative energy industry? Will the return of a Democratic majority in the House and the message on the wall sent by voters to Trump and his Trumpettes in advance of the 2020 elections prove worth the money spent? Or, will Congress continue to fiddle, while the Earth continues to burn?

There is no one answer to such questions. How the investment is valued, e.g., in terms of proposed/enacted legislation or the number of deregulation attempts rebuffed, depends upon multiple factors including time and location. For purposes of this discussion, let’s focus  mainly on the next two years. 

The Administration After Post November 6th 

Whatever happens on November 6th one thing won’t change. Trump will still be president and preside over the executive branch of government.

Trump’s position on climate change is unlikely to be altered by the outcome of the 2018 elections. If affected at all the odds are greatest that he’ll double down on his efforts to deregulate the environment and increase administration efforts to carry coal beyond New Castle to developing nations around the globe.

There are lessons to be learned from the 2018 elections about the political impact of climate issues. Global warming, for example, is taking center stage in Trump’s second-home state of Florida.

The presence of toxic red and blue-green algae blooms is front and center in the minds of Florida voters. The massive blooms are killing sea life and preventing tourists from going to the beach—where now there are No Swimming signs where “sunbrellas” should be and the foul odor of dead fish. Should the term-limited governor, Rick Scott (R), lose to Florida’s incumbent Senator Bill Nelson (D) he can blame it on algae.

As Governor, Scott’s environmental record was abominable. As reported by the Washington Post Scott cut hundreds of millions of dollars from agencies that manage fresh water, laid off hundreds of workers in the environmental protection department, squashed a deal to buy land from sugar farms that pollute water and killed an attempt to increase inspections of septic tanks that soil water and contribute to the algae problem. (emphasis added)

The threats to Florida’s economy by climate-related problems like algae blooms, offshore drilling, and more frequent and ferocious hurricanes and rains are turning Republican voters into Democratic supporters. Environmental matters are also converting some of the state’s Republican representatives, e.g., Curbelo, into climate champions.

Senator Nelson’s name has consistently shown up on most vulnerable incumbents lists. Just a few days before balloting Scott and Nelson are in a virtual tie, and Governor Scott is being heralded as Red Tide Rick. The difference between Florida’s gubernatorial candidates on the causes and consequences of global warming is nearly as stark.

Trump and company would be wise to consider the role climate change is playing in the Florida races for both senator and governor, as well as contests in other states, e.g., Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. Between now and the 2020 election there will be storms, sea level rises impacting coastal properties, algae blooms, poisoned aquifers and other disasters that voters are likely to attribute to global climate change. Trump would do well to heed this year’s hints about the willingness of voters in critical states like Florida to put party aside in favor of defending their homelands and local economies.

Despite my best advice, there is no likelihood of Trump backtracking on his full ahead fossil fuel strategy any time soon.

The bottom line–  

  • The Trump administration will continue down the path of deregulation of the environment, denial of the conclusions of most of the world’s climate scientists, and the pursuit of ways to skew energy economies towards increased use of fossil fuels in the US and abroad.
  • The Administration’s continued unwillingness to engage honestly with climate defenders—even those within the Trump-Republican Party–means federal courts will continue to be the preferred venues in which to debate the issues and defend the environment.
  • Expect the White House to continue nominating individuals to key executive offices who share its views on climate—looking to the industries it wants to deregulate as a candidate pool.
  • Over the next two years Trump will continue to have opportunities to nominate individuals to the federal bench who, like Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Kavanaugh are textualists looking to the letter and not the spirit of environmental laws like the Clean Air Act.

The 116th Congress

Odds are the Republicans will lose the House and maintain or expand their majority in the Senate. Trump has even begun to posit in his public statements the possibility that the Democrats will win back the House.

The Democrat’s failure to flip the Senate as well as the House means Trump can continue apace to nominate mostly ultraconservatives to the federal bench and key executive agency positions. 

Control of only one chamber of Congress is not enough on its own to move major bills—at least those not also agreeable to a Republican Senate and White House. Majority status should be sufficient, however, to defeat legislation, check specific executive actions, and control what makes it to the House floor for a vote and when. (See here for additional information)

Macro-tensions between the parties will not be the only conflicts in Congress. Intra-party divisions will be made apparent especially in the House when each of the caucuses votes on their leadership positions.

Ryan’s announced retirement has left the top position—either Speaker of the House or Minority Leader– open to a competition between the more and less conservative Republican House factions. Ryan’s Number 2, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), is being challenged by Jim Jordan (R-OH), who is the co-founder of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. Under ordinary circumstances, McCarthy would be considered a gold card Republican conservative. Because Trump’s brand of populism now defines the Republican Party conservatives like McCarthy are by comparison moderates.

These, of course, are not ordinary times; neither is Trump an ordinary politician. Jordan’s personality and political positions are in line with Trump’s spoken desires to slash budgets, regulations, and the number of incoming foreign “invaders.” Most importantly, perhaps, the Party’s far-right core supporters believe Jordan to be just the tool Trump needs to drain the swamp. McCarthy, on the other hand, is considered just another establishment politician.

The turn to the right on the Republican side of the divide is prompting a shift to the left by Democrats. The loss of the 2016 presidential election and an intensely negative reaction both to Trump the man and the president—particularly by women, voters of color, and first and second-generation Americans–is invigorating Democratic voters. These same factors have also brought in a large number of first-time candidates; some of whom, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have pushed out the old guard believing it’s time for a generational shift in the Party’s leadership and an agenda focused on social issues, including climate change.

Pelosi will likely have the votes to continue to lead the Democratic House caucus—whether as Speaker or Minority Leader. A generational change may well be needed; however, the timing is off. The usual means to settle such matters is to give the more progressive, less experienced members of the Caucus coveted committee positions and lower-line leadership titles.

In light of insufficient power to push through significant climate legislation, Democrats will undoubtedly use their capture of House committees to accuse and investigate what Trump and company have been doing since coming into office. With the ethics investigations underway at EPA and the Department of the Interior, the frequency with which the courts have ordered senior Trump executives to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act, and the blatant effort to replace mainstream climate-scientists with known deniers, oversight and subject matter committees can command a parade of Administration officials to come and explain themselves.

Whether such a “worm-has-turned” strategy will be viewed as other than retribution by constituents and voters will greatly depend on how it is done. These days deftness and diplomacy are rarely used to describe the interaction of politicians. Revenge will not help to convince Republican voters that climate change requires the nation’s collective attention.

The flash and bang of retributive committee hearings are unlikely to hide the fact that Democrats seem not to have any substantive proposals on what the federal government should be doing to combat climate change. Defending existing federal laws, regulations and programs at the Departments of Energy, Interior, Commerce, and elsewhere in executive agencies is not a solution. At best, it is a holding pattern.

Emily Holden writing in the Guardian summed up the Democrat’s dilemma neatly:

Democrats don’t have a plan to address climate change comprehensively – or even to a significant degree – if they regain control of the US government in the near future, despite criticizing Republicans as the party of pollution. After failing to get conservatives on board to limit planet-warming gases through legislation or regulation, Democratic leaders in Washington are now wary of wading into another tough political fight, despite an intensifying environmental crisis.

Climate policy is being talked about at the state level and by various candidates on both sides of the aisle, e.g., Ocasio-Cortez and Curbelo. On November 6th nine states will be voting on environmental measures from that increase the use of renewables, ban offshore drilling, preserve lands and wildlife and limit fracking.  Also, on the list of state ballot initiatives is a carbon fee, i.e., the latest effort by Washington state to enact a carbon tax.

Any serious substantive Congressional debate on climate policy over the two-year life of the 116th Congress s likely to be in the context of a carbon tax. A national carbon tax has garnered bi-partisan support both in and out of Congress. Consideration of the tax by various House and Senate committees is an opportunity for members on both sides of the aisle to appear engaged in a dialogue. It has no chance of passage by the 116th Congress and signed into law by Trump.

The states have been filling the climate-void since Trump was sworn in. Congress could approach its consideration of a national climate policy as a matter of re-defining “federalism” in-line with today’s realities.

The bottom line– 

  • Control of only one chamber of Congress is not enough on its own to move significant legislation.
  • Control of the House by Democrats can serve to block certain anti-environmental policies and actions of the Trump administration, e.g., downsizing and regulatory revisions, through legislative riders, budget and appropriations measures and investigation of executive agency actions.
  • There is a danger of further politicizing climate change by appearing to engage tit-for-tat recriminations once the power shifts from right to left.
  • The nation is still years away from putting into place a stable and integrated strategy for combating and adapting to the Earth’s warming.

Were the investments worth it?

Some investments need to be made because not making them would prove disastrous. Like it or not campaigns and contributions are inseparable parts of our political system. It is not to suggest that any cause is lost unless politicians are paid to support them. Neither is it to imply that prevailing in the political marketplace is contingent on being the highest bidder.

Well, OK I admit there is some of that going on. No system based on trading favors is entirely immune to corruption.

Campaign contributions made by individual and corporate/organizational climate champions this election cycle should not be thought of as graft or payola. Consider the contributions as the ante in a poker game. Although in this case failing to contribute to campaign funds, whether through intermediary organizations like NRDC or directly to candidates, doesn’t exclude you from still playing.

Consider for example the rising number of youth advocates taking it upon themselves to move the needle on issues like gun control, e.g., the survivors of school shootings, and the environment, e.g., the 21 youthful Juliana vs. US plaintiffs who have used their case’s notoriety to organize peaceful demonstrations around and advocate through social media, e.g., #youthvgov, to amplify their voices and ensure that whatever happens in court won’t stop them from making their point.

Notwithstanding the considerable cost of this year’s midterm elections, it should be remembered that large sums of money contributed by billionaires and well-heeled industries are not more newsworthy than large numbers of small contributors. Almost half of Beto O’Rourke’s record-breaking haul came from small individual contributors. (see Figure 3)

Beta O'Rourke contributions

Figure 3

Large numbers of small contributors validate the seriousness of the candidacy. Proof of this statement is the election of President Obama and the near presidential nomination of Bernie Sanders in 2016.

For NRDC, LCV and other environmental groups campaign contributions give the organizations stature and exhibit the willingness and understanding of their members to play the game. In the case of alternative energy companies and billionaires contributing cash to campaign coffers, a different picture is presented. Corporate contributions show there is money to be made in commercial markets and new jobs to be had in emerging industries. Political donations from businesses are like a dress for success visual.

It is pretty much guaranteed that nothing of substance by way of federal climate policies, and programs is likely to be accomplished between the time the 116th Congress is gaveled to order and the votes are counted in the 2020 election. For as long as government and politics in the US remain as divisive and antagonistic as they are now the returns on campaign investments are to be measured in terms of what a Democratic House majority and Senate minority can do to check precipitous and damaging executive actions.

The one result in the 2018 elections that can be considered a failed investment is the Senate remaining in Republican hands. A substantial number of high-ranking administration officials and White House staff are expected to leave shortly after the November ballots are counted. Replacement of the “Trexiters” like Secretary of the Interior Zinke, who is rumored to be the subject of 18 ethics investigations, and Attorney General Sessions, whom Trump appears to hate, requires Senate confirmation. Democrats would have had far more opportunities to check and balance the White House had they been able to capture the Senate.

The bottom line–  

Any investment that helps to increase the number of Representatives and Senators willing to protect and defend the environment will at some point realize a handsome return.

Lead image credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/PKyD9-zv7XY (Kenny Luo @kennyluoping)

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American politics, environmental regulations, US elections