Greens and Dems smell a wave coming in 2018

Source: Josh Kurtz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 13, 2017

Last week’s elections were a wild success for Democrats and their allies in the environmental movement. Now they sense momentum heading into the critical 2018 midterms.

“We’re off to a great start this election cycle,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “Clean energy was a big winner [on Tuesday], and polluters were the big losers.”

Greens said their efforts directly affected the outcomes of several key elections. In Virginia, Democrats swept all statewide offices and made dramatic gains in the House of Delegates. In New Jersey, Democrats flipped the governor’s office, and they seized control of the Senate in Washington state (Climatewire, Nov. 8).

Environmentalists interpreted those results as a sign that protecting the planet is a winning political position.

“Someone who stands up to President Trump’s cuts to clean air and water is just as important as someone fighting cuts to health care,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration. Exit polls in Virginia and New Jersey did not show climate, energy or the environment to be among the top issues that determined how people voted. In Virginia, the No. 1 issue was health care; in New Jersey, it was corruption in government.

But as Democrats and their allies surveyed the landscape in the aftermath of their big day, it’s fair to say that many of the interest groups traditionally aligned with the party had something to be happy about — beyond the Democrats’ overall successes.

Virginia voters, for example, sent more Latinos to the state House of Delegates than ever before. A transgender woman defeated one of the Legislature’s most vocal anti-gay members. A former TV reporter whose girlfriend was shot to death while reporting on the air defeated an incumbent lawmaker who was an ally of the National Rifle Association.

In Maine, voters supported a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid coverage in the state. And while it was not on the ballot, the local government in Maryland’s largest jurisdiction passed a “living wage” proposal on Election Day, mandating $15-an-hour minimum salaries for workers.

As part of the Democratic coalition — and coupled with analysts’ conclusions that Trump’s rhetoric and record helped sink the GOP — environmental victories in races from coast to coast contributed to the energy that Democrats are hoping to sustain into next year’s elections.

“For Democrats to continue their winning streak, they need to find a way to branch out to each of their core constituencies, and that includes the environmental groups,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist and pollster at Goucher College in Baltimore. “No longer will we see progressive groups silo themselves. They need to intersect.”

Democratic leaders and strategists see parallels to the 2005-06 election cycle, when they won the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey en route to sweeping control of both chambers of Congress in 2006, as President George W. Bush’s popularity sagged.

“In 2005, I was head of the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], and you could smell a wave coming,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference yesterday. “The results [Tuesday] night smell exactly the same way. Our Republican friends better watch out.”

Independent analysts wonder if this is shaping up to be the reverse of the 2009-10 election cycle, when President Obama’s popularity was taking a hit during high-profile debates over carbon cap-and-trade legislation and a complicated health care reform bill. Republicans took Virginia and New Jersey, won a huge upset in a special U.S. Senate election in January 2010, then flipped 63 Democratic-held House seats to regain control of the chamber.

Democrats and their allies are now debating how aggressively they should play in a special U.S. Senate election in Alabama next month. Republicans have a flawed nominee in former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore but are still favored.

Karpinski said the LCV Action Fund has endorsed the Democrat, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, and has contributed some money to his campaign.

“That’s obviously a challenging race,” he said.

2018: Not as easy as it looks

Equally challenging for the Democrats are the obstacles they face as they try to flip control of the Senate, where they need to pick up three seats, and the House, where they need to pick up 24.

The Senate number is manageable in theory but is complicated by the fact that the Democrats face a challenging map this cycle and are playing defense in most competitive races. Democrats are almost certain to pick up House seats, but gerrymandering may limit their opportunities.

There are also 36 gubernatorial elections on tap next year; Republicans hold a 34-15 seat advantage, with one independent.

Karpinski said his group is assessing which Senate, House and state races to invest in. He suggested that the LCV may make gubernatorial elections a priority in 2018.

“The states are the place where we’re going to make progress on clean energy in the short term,” Karpinski said. “We know we’re not going to see much action in Congress.”

Focusing on statehouses presents another series of challenges for Democrats, according to Kromer, the pollster — especially if the economy remains fairly strong.

“No one’s going to be surprised if the Democrats pick up a lot of seats in the House next year,” she said. “But for the governors, one of the primary things that impacts their political fortunes is the health of the economy. It doesn’t make you bulletproof, but it sure helps.”

Publicly, Republicans are dismissing the notion that Democrats will be able to carry any momentum from this week into the 2018 midterms. They note that they’ve won all five special House elections in 2017, including a little-watched race in Utah on Tuesday where Provo Mayor John Curtis (R) easily won an open seat.

“We’re back to status quo,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said on Fox News yesterday. “Republicans won five special [House] elections, including Utah, last night that they should have won, and Democrats won two governorships that they should have won, so nothing really changed. They’re going to try and create this big narrative. They should have won Virginia and New Jersey.”

Republicans are also focused on passing sweeping tax reform legislation before the end of the year, and GOP House and Senate campaign committees yesterday attacked Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for opposing it. GOP leaders and strategists are hoping the tax measure will be popular with middle-class voters and will create momentum for the party heading into the midterms.

But one Republican congressional candidate, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called Tuesday’s results “an unmitigated butt-kicking.” And party strategists are girding for more Republican House members to retire — a situation exacerbated by Trump’s low poll numbers — creating additional opportunities for Democrats.

“That opens the door,” Pelosi said yesterday. “We get the fresh recruits, they get the retirements. We get the A Team, and the candidate is very important in the election.”

Still, in the age of Trump, social media and an ever-more mercurial electorate, the political narrative isn’t nearly as linear or predictable as it once was.

The 2018 election, Kromer said, “is both right around the corner and so long from now. Politics has kind of a weird time continuum.”