Greens take 2014 fight to states

Source: By DARREN GOODE and ANDREW RESTUCCIA, Politico • Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tom Steyer is pictured. | Getty

Tom Steyer’s super PAC aims to secure friendly majorities in state legislatures. | Getty


This story is part of an ongoing POLITICO series on how national policy issues are affecting the 2014 midterm elections.

Seeing no end to gridlock in Congress, national environmental groups are trying a new strategy for winning battles on climate change and green power: pouring record amounts of money into legislative races in a handful of states.

The multimillion-dollar push by groups like the League of Conservation Voters and liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s super PAC aims to secure friendly majorities in the legislatures of states such as Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Victories there could help blunt their grim prospects in D.C., where the all-but-paralyzed U.S. Senate may be in Republican hands after November.

In Washington state, where control of the state Senate narrowly rests with a conservative coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats, switching just two seats could put green-minded lawmakers in charge. That would help Gov. Jay Inslee’s chances of enacting a market-based carbon reduction program next year. Environmentalists there also hope to block coal export projects and are increasingly worried about trains carrying crude oil.

In Oregon, environmentalists are just shy of a majority of legislators needed to renew a green-fuel mandate that expires at the end of 2015. In Colorado, they want to maintain the state Senate’s thin Democratic majority, which could help defend a renewable energy program and impose tighter standards on oil and gas development.

“Policy action on clean energy will be at the local and state level for the next few years,” said Betsy Taylor, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based leader of a network of wealthy climate donors, adding that some states are considering imposing a price on carbon and more than 100 cities have clean-energy programs. “Donors are paying attention to this and investing in local candidates who are climate heroes.”

LCV’s state chapters are “looking at the state legislators as the congressmen and senators and governors of the future,” said Daniel Weiss, the group’s senior vice president for campaigns.

The state strategy isn’t entirely new — last year, greens pulled off a surprising effort to elect friendly candidates to four seats on Washington state’s Whatcom County Council, which will decide on a proposed export terminal that would help U.S. coal find markets in Asia. And conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council have succeeded for years in pushing causes like opposing Environmental Protection Agency regulations and passing pro-gun laws. But the environmentalists’ new focus on state-level races makes it clear that, increasingly, the battleground on energy policy is local.

Even some of the greens’ adversaries say the strategy makes sense.

“We’re in an era where state legislatures and statewide races are just more important than congressional races to the long-term policy,” said Michael Davis, CEO of Enterprise Washington, a coalition of business interests that support candidates Steyer is targeting for defeat. “D.C. is just so gridlocked right now that anything impactful is just darn near impossible to happen. Even if Republicans take control in the U.S. Senate, they’re not going to get anywhere because of the president.”

Another advantage: the relatively cheap price of state legislative campaigns. Oregon Democratic consultant Jake Weigler estimated that a typical competitive state Senate race there runs about $400,000 to $700,000, far less than the millions being lavished on the top U.S. Senate races. “For national groups, that’s chump change,” he said.

And unlike Congress, many state legislatures “still have some degree of bipartisan comity,” said Carl Pope, who led the Sierra Club for nearly two decades. “They actually legislate.”

The greens’ goal is twofold: Ward off attacks on states’ green energy programs and President Barack Obama’s climate policies, and push for new or expanded measures like efforts to put a price on carbon.

The states will be the battleground for Obama’s signature climate policy — EPA’s greenhouse gas rule for existing power plants. The states are responsible for writing plans to meet the new carbon limits, and some greens worry that conservative groups like ALEC could persuade lawmakers to interfere.

The national greens aren’t giving up their congressional efforts, of course. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee and LCV are still putting tens of millions of dollars into U.S. House and Senate races, including NextGen’s efforts to elect or reelect Democratic senators in Colorado, New Hampshire, Michigan and Iowa. Steyer is also spending big on an effort it announced early this year to unseat Republican Govs. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Rick Scott of Florida and Paul LePage of Maine.

But both groups are mounting a late effort to put serious money into the state legislative races. LCV plans to spend $5 million on local and state races this cycle — equal to how much it spent on races at all levels of government in the 2010 cycle — and Steyer earlier this month moved $1 million to NextGen’s Washington state PAC.

Steyer may also engage in state and local races in Iowa, Colorado and other places where his targeted U.S. Senate contests “overlap with state legislative target areas,” a NextGen official said.

NextGen announced Wednesday that it is supporting two Democratic state Senate candidates in Washington and two in Oregon. Steyer may also jump into “a few other races in Washington, in particular where the entire Democratic ally table believes we may be able to run climate messaging on,” the NextGen official said. That “table” of Democratic allies, which includes environmental groups, Planned Parenthood and major labor unions, may intervene in as many as 13 to 15 state House and Senate races in Washington, the official said.

LCV is supporting the work of its state chapters, which are backing the same four Democrats in Washington and Oregon.

In addition, Washington Conservation Voters, LCV’s Washington state chapter, is also supporting a third Democrat, Seth Fleetwood, who is challenging Republican state Sen. Doug Ericksen, the chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. Ericksen’s district is in Whatcom County, the site of the environmentalists’ 2013 triumph.

Washington Conservation Voters President Shannon Murphy said her group has about 1,000 volunteers knocking on doors and is planning television ads, direct mail, online ads and phone banking to support the three state Senate candidates. She alleged that Ericksen “is in the pocket of the oil and coal industry.”

Ericksen countered that he doesn’t think “D.C.-style attack politics” will work in his district. He called himself a leader on environmental issues but said he opposes measures like a carbon tax because they could hurt the economy.

“You have to have an environmental vision of the future that’s grounded in the reality of today,” Ericksen said. “And the reality of today is that we’re using petroleum-based fuels.”

One Washington state Democrat receiving help from Steyer and LCV, Matt Isenhower, downplayed the billionaire’s role in his race against Republican state Sen. Andy Hill.

“I have never met Tom Steyer, and none of this would be an issue had Andy Hill not told The Seattle Times that we should not take action on climate change and even denied its causes,” Isenhower said. He added, “My opponent’s campaign is funded by huge sums of money from oil companies, insurance companies and other special interest groups whose interests do not align with the voters of our district.”

Hill countered that it’s “disturbing that a California investor is attempting to influence the decisions we make in the next year about the future of our schools and local community.”

“With one stroke of his pen, Steyer has doubled the amount I have raised in small contributions over the last six months,” Hill added. “I’m just concerned about what commitments and strings are attached to that large of a sum of money to support a first-time candidate whose primary solution for the state is higher taxes for struggling families.”

Another Democrat in Washington state backed by Steyer and LCV’s state chapter, state Rep. Tami Green, admitted to some “trepidation” about the outside money, saying, “This kind of thing can come back to bite you.”

“But on the other hand, when I’ve been outspent so heavily, I’m not going to tell them no,” added Green, who is trying to unseat Republican state Sen. Steve O’Ban.

O’Ban said the kind of money Steyer could spend against him is “absolutely unprecedented in a Senate race like this,” but he doubted it will be enough to turn climate change into a crucial issue in his district. “People are concerned about paying the bills and getting more work, as well as education,” O’Ban said.

In Oregon, environmentalists hope a more climate-friendly legislature will extend the state’s low-carbon fuel requirements and support Gov. John Kitzhaber’s green energy policies. Democrats control the state Senate 16-14, but “because of the personal beliefs of some of the incumbent Democrats, we still struggle to move legislation,” said Oregon League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Doug Moore.

Fewer seats are in play in Oregon than in Washington state, but there is “at least one other that may be competitive enough for us to be engaged in,” the NextGen official said. The group may spend between $200,000 and $500,000 there, the official said.

One Oregon Republican that NextGen wants to defeat, state Sen. Betsy Close, said Steyer’s arguments won’t resonate with voters. “I serve my people well and people know me,” she said in an interview. “I’ve lived here 38 years. I’ve raised my children here.”

Close also had harsh words for Steyer. “What people need to know is that Mr. Steyer has made part of his billions from investing in big coal,” she said. “He is profiting from carbon fuels.” (Steyer, a former hedge fund executive, has since divested from his investments in fossil fuels.)

Asked where she stands on climate change, Close was skeptical of widespread warnings about a warming planet. “The things that they say are happening, when you look at the science, you don’t see it,” she said.

Close’s opponent, Democratic state Rep. Sara Gelser, said LCV has “been a partner of mine for a long time” and that she views climate change as a top issue, but she said she didn’t know of NextGen’s decision to spend money on her race until the group announced it. “I have never had a conversation with that organization and my campaign has never received a contribution from them,” she said.

Chuck Riley, the other Oregon Democrat that Steyer is backing, said he doesn’t know how the billionaire’s involvement will affect the race. “I hadn’t even heard about Tom’s involvement until I read it in the papers,” he said. On the other hand, he said, “I’m really proud to be supported by anybody who has the same values as I do.”

In Colorado, LCV’s state affiliate is supporting one Democrat for an open state Senate seat and backing a Democratic state House member’s reelection. Activists there are canvassing neighborhoods, sending out direct mail and launching radio ads.

Another national green group, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, jumped into Kansas’ GOP primary earlier this year by spending $15,000 on a mail and phone effort thanking four legislators for supporting the state’s green-electricity mandate, which had come under attack from the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity. All four Republicans won.

Of course, both sides can play the state game. Alliance for Freedom, a Virginia-based group affiliated with Mary Cheney, has spent close to $2 million in TV and radio ads praising Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback for supporting a proposed coal-fired power plant and criticizing EPA’s rules.

And the environmentalists haven’t won all their state-level battles. North Carolina’s Legislature voted to lift the state’s fracking ban this year even after the North Carolina Environmental Partnership spent $1.7 million on 5,193 negative ad spots against eight Republican lawmakers from mid-March to mid-July, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. The partnership included the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

In Arizona, two candidates opposed by the solar industry won a Republican primary in August for seats on the state’s Corporation Commission, which is debating a plan that could make rooftop solar systems prohibitively expensive.

Washington’s governor is glad to have the national greens’ assistance even if the outcome is uncertain, Inslee spokesman David Postman said.

“He absolutely welcomes help on environmental issues,” Postman said. “The question is, will it work? Who knows?”