Environmental groups watched in shock last night as many of the seats they considered shoo-ins fell to GOP control—leaving the movement examining its big-money midterm strategy and how to push climate action forward with a Republican Congress.
The nation's major green groups spent about $85 million trying to make climate change a central focus of the election and elect pro-action candidates. They knew going in they faced an uphill battle. The sixth year of an administration is historically difficult for the ruling party to win, and many of the races were being contested in red, energy-producing states.
But in the final weeks and days leading to Election Day, political forecasters projected positive outcomes for many of the races in which environmentalists spent time and money.
"I felt disappointment, straight up," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told InsideClimate News about watching the results come in. "It was hard to swallow seeing a lot of our friends and strong climate champions lose their races. And there were results that took us by surprise."
The unexpected losses included incumbent Democratic Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who lost their reelection bids 45-49 percent and 47-49 percent, respectively. Sen. Mark Begich's loss in Alaska came as a surprise as well. In the Florida gubernatorial race, Democrat Charlie Crist was defeated for his old governor's seat 47-48 percent by GOP incumbent Rick Scott.
Groups including the Sierra Club, NRDC Action Fund, Environmental Defense Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters—in addition to billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer—poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising and field operations in races across the country to combat the efforts of billionaire oil brothers Charles and David Koch. The groups knew they wouldn't be able to go dollar-for-dollar against the Kochs, who spent at least $100 million this cycle (not including dark money donations that remain anonymous). But they hoped it would help neutralize some of the brothers' impact. And they believe it did—just not enough.
The groups did get two big Senate wins last night. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Democratic Gary Peters, previously a Representative for Michigan's 14th congressional district, both defeated their opponents. In addition, the League of Conservation Voters announced last night that seven of its "Dirty Dozen" candidates lost their elections.
"We always knew this was going to be a difficult cycle in the Senate," said Jeff Gohringer, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. "We were almost exclusively playing defense in red and purple states and our work helped keep these races close up until Election Day."
The question is whether some or even much of that money should have been spent elsewhere. Such a big-money strategy is reminiscent of the movement's inside-the-beltway tactics used in 2009, when environmentalists spent $229 million to move the cap-and-trade bill through Congress. The legislation ultimately failed.
Elizabeth Thompson, president of EDF Action, told reporters on Wednesday that if anything, green groups should have spent more. "It is really expensive to play effectively in politics. And I think we needed to spend more," she said.
But others aren't so sure.
"It is important to be involved in shaping the electoral landscape, but clearly what we did this election was not enough," said Jamie Henn, cofounder and communications director of 350.org. "We've always said we need to find another currency to drive change than campaign contributions. We've learned we to need to strengthen the grassroots movement. We are not going to win climate through a series of ad buys."
Henn isn't the only environmental leader questioning whether the movement should have focused on utilizing the grassroots networks it built during the last few years. These local efforts have been successful in delaying the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and fighting the expansion of natural gas extraction in ways that national efforts have not. They could also help spur turnout of climate-conscious voters at the polls.
Brune of the Sierra Club said the movement first needs to better highlight the economic benefits of switching from fossil fuels to clean energy.
But more attenton to its grassroots base is also important.
"It is important to be able to respond to the flood of Koch-funded advertisements on the airwaves, but it is also true that in the end, money isn't going to win," Brune said. "So what we have to do is be smarter, organize harder, build a broader coalition, and be clearer about the benefits of the changes we are advocating for. All those things were done in the People's Climate March, which is why it was so successful. And now we need to apply the principals that were used in the march to our electoral work and to everything that we do."
There are a few races across the country where hyperlocal, grassroots environmental efforts proved successful.
In Nebraska, Republican congressman Lee Terry lost his reelection bid to Democrat Brad Ashford. Terry is a vocal supporter of the Keystone XL in a state where the pipeline has become increasingly toxic. The grassroots group Bold Nebraska campaigned heavily to get Terry out of office.
The super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, which aims to get pro-climate action candidates elected using grassroots strategies, claimed victory in 10 of the 17 races in which it got involved.
"The climate movement is still in its infancy and still learning how to play tough politics," said RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote. "One billionaire coming into a lot of races, all in one year, doesn't begin to counter the many think tanks and overlapping PACs and tentacles of the Kochtopus."