Minn. Senate race presents stark differences on climate

Source: By Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, January 10, 2020

Correction appended.

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith (D) has a clear position on climate change. Act big and act now.

But she could lose her seat in November if a majority of Minnesota voters see climate change more like President Trump and one of his close surrogates, former Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn).

Smith and Lewis are expected to wage a fierce battle in the 2020 campaign, including over climate change. The choice for voters will be stark.

Lewis is a climate change denier endorsed by Trump. The former talk radio host from the Twin Cities suburbs also rejects climate science, once calling global warming “a theory whose fundamental premise looks weaker every day.” Trump has said climate change is a hoax.

Smith is a champion to environmentalists.

Since joining the Senate in 2018, she has embraced progressive climate causes, joining the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.

She also spent her first year in office on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she promoted wind and solar power. She co-authored the “Clean Energy Standard Act of 2019,” which would set the nation’s electricity sector on a path to decarbonization by 2050. Smith has pressed, too, for greater disclosure about carbon emissions and climate change risk by private companies.

“The science has made it clear: If we’re going to save our health and save our planet, we need to take serious action on climate change now,” states Smith’s campaign website.

As evidence of her climate credentials, Smith received a 100% voting record on the League of Conservation Voters most recent environmental scorecard, compared to Lewis’ 0% during his term in Congress.

Lewis has called the international Paris Agreement a “massive transfer of wealth” that penalizes the United States while giving China and India loopholes to increase carbon emissions. The Trump administration moved to exit the accord in 2017.

He also described himself as “in sync” with Trump, who plugged the former congressman at an October rally in Minneapolis.

“The argument I’m making is that if Trump wins in Minnesota, Lewis wins,” said David Schultz, a political scientist and elections expert at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Emailed questions to both the Smith and Lewis campaigns went unreturned.

Without a robust and well-funded campaign, experts say, Smith could become a casualty in Trump’s well-financed effort to flip Minnesota. The president’s campaign is expected to spend up to $30 million to win the state in 2020 after losing by a razor-thin margin to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

October campaign finance disclosures show Smith outperforming Lewis in fundraising. Between July and September, the Smith campaign raised $1.3 million. Lewis, who launched his campaign in late August, raised $413,000 in the six weeks between Aug. 22 and Sept. 30.

But Smith has warned that Lewis could benefit from Trump’s focus on Minnesota, riding the president’s coattails and his campaign’s bank account. A string of fundraising emails from the Smith campaign in December were topped with subject lines like “Bad News,” “I’m concerned,” and most recently, “Yesterday’s missed goal.”

Schultz, of Hamline University in St. Paul, said November’s election may hinge more on voter demographics and turnout than on fundraising.

The state’s two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, will provide a solid base of Smith support, Schultz said. But rural Minnesota has shifted Republican over the last several election cycles, including the state’s farmers, miners and manufacturing workers, a bloc that once made up what today is still called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL.

Many of those former Democrats are now backing Trump, whose populist, anti-regulation, anti-tax messages resonate in the state’s rural areas.

“They’re not breaking with him,” said Schultz, even as some of the president’s policies, such as the ongoing trade war with China, are stressing Minnesota farmers.

Given Trump’s solid support among conservatives, he suggested that Smith could benefit from focusing more on Lewis, whose views on climate change and environmental protection may turn off more moderate voters.

“I think she has to increasingly create that narrative, to sharpen her message about Lewis,” Schultz said. “She hasn’t made the argument against Lewis yet. She’s mostly running as an anti-Trump candidate.”

He added that Smith also needs to emerge from Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s shadow as Minnesota’s better-known senator and home-state Democratic presidential candidate.

“She doesn’t have as deep a donor base. She doesn’t have two or three terms in the U.S. Senate, and she’s not a high-profile senator in the way Klobuchar is,” Schultz said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Klobuchar campaign is eating away at [Smith’s] funding base.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Sen. Tina Smith’s 2018 Senate committee assignment. She was a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.