Trump’s victory in 2016, along with his administration’s subsequent attempts to roll back numerous environmental rules, have fueled a fundraising surge that environmental groups hope will help them put a check on the president by electing Democratic majorities in Congress.
“It will be by far the most money we’ve ever spent,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “Our supporters around the country are stepping up in a big way because what they’re seeing is the most anti-environmental president in history.”
Ariel Hayes, the Sierra Club’s political director, agreed that its members are motivated to donate in order “to put the brakes on the Trump administration.”
She added, “It's not just about the millions of dollars spent, but about the millions of actions taken by our members and supporters who are volunteering on campaigns, knocking on doors, making phone calls, and engaging in any capacity.”
Yet even with more campaign cash than ever, environmental groups still may face some of the same headwinds with voters they have in years past. Historically, polls have shown that environmental issues rank much lower among voters’ concerns compared to those that affect their pocketbooks, like health-care costs and the performance of the economy.
The League of Conservation Voters hopes to buck that trend by using to district-by-district polling to hone its messaging in eight priority House race in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
But its biggest target is Southern California, where the group is heavily investing in four races in districts covers parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
In total, LCV plans to spend over $25 million on House and Senate races, hoping to help Democrats keep Senate seats in Montana and Ohio and to flip them in Arizona and Nevada. Another $25 million will go to governor, state legislator and other down-ballot races.
The group’s internal polling has found that emphasizing the health repercussions of air and water pollution, as well as the need to protect public lands, plays particularly well with suburban women, a key voting bloc in many tight House districts at the edges of cities.
Those swing suburban areas include California’s 49th District, where LCV endorsed Democrat Mike Levin, an environmental attorney who founded a trade organization in Orange County for the clean energy sector.
Levin garnered attention in the crowded Democratic primary field after he challenged the sitting congressman, Republican Darrell Issa, about climate change during a town hall last year.
Levin, who worked on the Clinton campaign, said he was motivated to run by frustration at the lack of attention on climate change, both in his district and nationally.
“I remember attending the debate in Las Vegas,” Levin said in an interview in July, referring to the third on-stage bout between Trump and Clinton 2016. “It didn’t get brought up and I thought, this is really a shame.”
All of the federal candidates LCV formally endorsed this year are Democrats, a testament to how far rightward the GOP have shifted on environmental issues since 2008, when the party’s standard-bearer, John McCain, pressed for cap-and-trade legislation and when about a fifth of LCV’s congressional endorsements were for Republicans.
“At the federal level,” LCV’s Karpinski said, “it's become almost impossible to find Republicans to support.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund said it will likely just about double its campaign spending from two years ago, from about $1 million to $2 million, “with the bulk of that going to targeted get-out-the-vote efforts,” spokesman Denis Dison said.
The Sierra Club does not have a final campaign spending total yet, but a spokesman for the nation’s largest environmental organization said it expects to spend around $6 million. In 2016, the Sierra Club had planned to devote $3.8 million to campaigns.
Likewise, the Environmental Defense Action Fund has not nailed down its campaign spending total, but through a spokesman the group said it expects “our total spending will be surpass the more than $6 million we spent in 2016.”
However, billionaire financier Tom Steyer, historically one of the biggest backers of candidates from the environmental movement, has taken on a wider portfolio of causes, including immigration. Steyer’s NextGen America PAC, formerly NextGen Climate, is planning to invest about $32 million into driving out the youth vote.
“Even though we’ve rebranded, addressing climate change is still in our mission statement and is a premier issue we’re talking to young voters about," NextGen America spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier said.
Even as the Trump administration amends or eliminates pollution rules at the behest of industry, polling shows the public tends to want to politicians to address other issues first.
According to a Pew Research Center survey in June, only 4 percent of respondents named the environment as their No. 1 for candidates to address. Immigration, healthcare, education, the economy, guns, jobs and taxes all scored higher.
Environmentalists’ spending “could certainly have a tangential effect on some races,” said Frank Maisano, an energy expert at the law and lobbying shop Bracewell, “but it’s not going to be a major driver.”
Indeed, LCV has a history of mixed success. In 2016, only 30 percent of the $19 million it spent on congressional races in 2016 went to winning candidates. But just a year later, across-the-board victories for endorsees like Democratic Govs. Phil Murphy in New Jersey and Ralph Northam in Virginia gave the group a 96 percent success rate in all races that year.
Correction: This story originally and incorrectly referred to the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Resources Defense Council.