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How Climate Cause Could Boost Future Democrats

Pollsters find local environmental issues proved winning midterm strategy in Montana, New Jersey and California

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., shown here at a parade at Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., campaigned on promises to protect public land. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., shown here at a parade at Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., campaigned on promises to protect public land. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic candidates who focused on local environmental issues were able to sway swing voters and pull ahead in several key midterm races, according to an analysis released Tuesday by a group of left-leaning pollsters and strategists.

“The top takeaway from 2018 is quite simple: that the environmental message works and is politically salient,” said Joe Bonfiglio during a briefing of research from Global Strategy Group, a consulting group that works with Democratic campaigns. Bonfiglio is the president of EDF Action, the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Voters in the Montana Senate race and races for California’s 48th and New Jersey’s 3rd districts said in post-election surveys that they remembered messages about the environment as much or more than candidate stances on other issues, including taxes and health care, the pollsters said. The study results suggest candidate positions on the environment played a deciding role in those races, all of which were decided by single digits. 

Those findings come as both parties wrestle with their response to a series of environmental disasters and dire government reports about the future of climate change. 

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Progressives in the incoming Democratic House majority, led by New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, have attempted in recent days to push the party to adopt an aggressive response to climate change they have dubbed “The Green New Deal.” In the GOP, meanwhile, President Trump has sought to undo Obama-era environmental regulations and skepticism of climate change is becoming mainstream

Democratic candidates could win in 2020 if they focus on how pollution and climate change impacts voters’ lives, Bonfiglio said.

He and the other pollsters, from Global Strategy Group and LCV Victory Fund, the political committee of the League of Conservation Voters, said the races they profiled in Montana, New Jersey and California show the strength of such messages.

In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester ran on protecting the state’s water and public lands. Tester painted opponent Matt Rosendale as an “East Coast” developer who did not understand the role public land played in Montana lives.

The Global Strategy Group post-election survey data showed that 93 percent of Montana voters recalled Tester’s message, and 82 percent of Tester’s supporters rated it as a convincing reason to vote against Rosendale.

In New Jersey’s 3rd District Democrat Andy Kim defeated incumbent Tom McArthur. The pollsters tied that victory in part to ads run by LCV Victory Fund and EDF Action that tied McArthur’s environmental positions, and the health problems caused by pollution, to his attempts to weaken protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. 

They also pointed to California’s 48th District, where incumbent Dana Rohrbacher has questioned the science of climate change. In partnership with Independence USA PAC, LCV Victory Fund ran ads there featuring Rohrbacher’s statements against images of the wildfires that devastated large swaths of the state this fall.

More than two-thirds of voters in the district, including 71 percent of swing voters, recalled seeing the ad. The pollsters concluded the campaign helped deliver Democrat Harley Rouda’s victory.

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