‘Green New Deal’ fight puts spotlight on moderates

Source: Mark K. Matthews, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to jam moderate Democrats by bringing up the “Green New Deal” for a vote.

But supporters of the climate proposal argue McConnell is misplaying his hand and vulnerable Republicans will be the ones paying the price.

Knowing who’s right is impossible to guess at this point, but Colorado may offer clues on which way the winds could shift. The state’s two senators — Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner — each have an uncertain political future, and the “Green New Deal” has the potential to affect the fates of both, albeit in different ways.

In Bennet’s case, it’s about the White House. Like many of his Senate Democratic colleagues, Bennet has flirted with the idea of running for president. But his record on environmental issues isn’t as far left as those of some in his caucus — starting with his 2014 vote in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

If the “Green New Deal” indeed becomes a litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates, Bennet could face immense pressure to back the measure. Several Democrats looking at the White House already have signed on as co-sponsors, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“If he’s really serious about putting his name on the ballot for president, he has to support this without question,” said Colorado pollster David Flaherty, who used to work for the Republican National Committee.

Asked about the “Green New Deal” resolution, Bennet aides said the senator was reviewing the proposal.

In a statement, Bennet said the progressive plan “continues a much-needed conversation on how combating climate change and creating jobs are not at odds with one another.” But he noted that Washington needs to provide the country with “a durable solution to address climate change, not one that whipsaws back-and-forth” between administrations.

Pete Maysmith, who served as executive director of Conservation Colorado before taking a leadership role with the League of Conservation Voters, wasn’t as black-and-white in his response as Flaherty when he described Bennet’s choices on the “Green New Deal” and a White House bid.

But he argued that it is “essential that any candidate running in the Democratic primary has an ambitious plan for climate change and making it a top priority.”

Bennet, for his part, described climate change as a crisis in response to President Trump’s national emergency declaration to help build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Climate change is a national emergency. So is child poverty,” Bennet wrote in a Twitter post Thursday. “You know what’s not, @realDonaldTrump? Your ridiculous campaign promise.”

‘More reward than risk’

In Colorado’s other corner is Gardner, who’s up for re-election in 2020.

The last time Gardner appeared on the ballot, he beat Democrat Mark Udall in one of the biggest statewide wins for Colorado Republicans in the last decade. Environmental groups spent millions of dollars on Udall’s behalf in the 2014 election, spurred by his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and a lifetime score of 96 percent with the League of Conservation Voters.

But it wasn’t enough. Udall lost his re-election bid the same night fellow Democrat John Hickenlooper — who takes a more moderate stance on energy and environmental issues — won his second term as governor. (Colorado politicos maintain, however, that Hickenlooper faced a weaker Republican opponent in former congressman Bob Beauprez).

Gardner’s 2020 run likely will be a tough one, no matter his opponent.

Unlike 2014, he’ll be running in a presidential election year — an added challenge given that Colorado backed the Democratic presidential candidate in the last three elections. Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 5 percentage points in 2016.

At the same time, there are signs Colorado is leaning left. The state elected former Democratic Rep. Jared Polis as governor in 2018; a big piece of Polis’ platform was getting Colorado to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.

Gardner’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but he criticized the “Green New Deal” in an interview with Politico. “This idea is about socialism — that’s what this is,” Gardner said. “Look at it. Read it. And it’s important that we tell the American people what it is.”

In Gardner’s re-election race, Colorado voters soon could get a chance to decide between two different attitudes toward the “Green New Deal.”

One of the Democrats running against Gardner — Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker — already has declared his support for the proposal.

“I’ll lead the fight for Medicare for all; good jobs and the education and training they require; and a Green New Deal to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy,” he says on his campaign website. Romanoff’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Flaherty, the Colorado pollster, argued that Gardner could use the “Green New Deal” to his advantage by emphasizing its most ambitious tenets — such as upgrading all U.S. buildings to be more energy-efficient.

“There is more reward than risk for Cory to vote against it,” he said.

But Maysmith of the League of Conservation Voters said Gardner has done little to address the danger of global warming over the course of his political career, and that kind of gap is becoming more of a liability.

“Voters increasingly understand the urgency of the climate change crisis and are demanding bold action,” Maysmith said.

Shifting voter views

Another reason Colorado serves as a good test case for climate change politics and the “Green New Deal” is because its electorate is almost evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

While global warming traditionally has not been a major electoral issue, there are signs of a broad shift in American attitudes.

More than 70 percent of Americans polled recently by Yale and George Mason universities said climate change was at least “somewhat” important to them, a significant uptick from past surveys.

“The proportion who say it is personally important has increased by 16 percentage points since March 2015, and by nine points since our previous survey in March 2018,” wrote the authors.

Colorado won’t be the only state where climate change or the “Green New Deal” could play a role in the 2020 election.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which tries to elect GOP lawmakers to the House, already has used the issue to attack dozens of Democratic candidates that it plans to target in the 2020 election. One of the group’s official comments about the “Green New Deal” was simply “lol.”

Meanwhile, activists with the Sunrise Movement — which has spearheaded the “Green New Deal” campaign — say they welcome McConnell’s plan to vote on the proposal. They will put pressure on Republican senators up for election in 2020, such as Gardner and Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

“If we can pull this off, we will turn the tables on Mitch and create a political earthquake,” wrote the group in a recent organizing email. “We’ll bring thousands of new people into the movement, spread our message to millions, and make sure every politician around the country thinks twice before they refuse to back the Green New Deal.”