With a population of little more than 200,000, Washington’s Whatcom County has rarely been an electoral battlefield. But this year, nearly a million dollars in outside donations flooded races for four seats on the county council, which will vote on a controversial coal export facility in the coming years. All of the candidates supported by environmental groups won, marking a rare political triumph for climate hawks over the energy industry.
Such victories could become more common, as mainstream environmental groups and new political action committees (PACs) leverage millions to make climate change a key issue in political campaigns. This year, green groups targeted three races with the intention of putting climate on the ballot: June’s special election for a Massachusetts senate seat, the governor’s race in Virginia, and the Whatcom County elections. Environmentalists established a robust grassroots presence and outspent fossil fuel and industry lobbies in each race. They won all three.
“It shows the environmental community is able to play in a serious way, politically,” said Navin Nayak, vice-president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. In Virginia, the League’s state organization funneled nearly $1 million to Terry McAuliffe, making the group his second-largest donor behind the Democratic Governors Association. Nayak estimated that the League ran the largest field program outside the official campaigns, knocking on 300,000 doors. McAuliffe won by just 55,000 votes.
“The fact that both sides went head to head on climate change…and the pro-climate candidate prevailed is a big deal, especially in a state like Virginia,” said Nayak. The implication for 2014 is that climate change denial can be turned into a losing issue. McAuliffe is no climate hawk, but he has been supportive of renewable energy and said in early October that he supported the EPA’s new carbon pollution rules for power plants. Ken Cuccinelli, on the other hand, is a close friend and beneficiary of the fossil fuel industry, and a climate change denier who made opposition to environmental regulation a prominent part of his platform. Energy contributed more than any other industry to his campaign, with Big Coal accounting for over half those donations.
McAuliffe attacked Cuccinelli in a TV ad for using taxpayer money to investigate a prominent climate scientist at the University of Virginia named Michael Mann, known for his “hockey stick” chart showing a sharp rise in temperatures in the last century. Similar ads were run by NextGen Climate Action Committee, a PAC founded by the San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer who is best known for his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. In total, NextGen mobilized more than $2 million against Cuccinelli. “It’s a very clear signal to candidates who deny the basic science of climate change,” said Nayak.
The results in Whatcom County suggest that climate can be winning issue, too. What drew the flood of money into the council elections is a proposal to build an export terminal in the town of Cherry Point, which would transfer 48 million tons of coal carried from Montana and Wyoming by rail to cargo ships bound for Asia. While the implications of the port are global, its fate may be decided locally. Siting permits require the council’s approval, and a no vote could halt development indefinitely.
The millions of tons of carbon pollution that the port would unleash, along with the local impacts of coal trains, drew environmentalists into the fight. (Read my report from the Powder River Basin, the source of the coal, here.) The league’s Washington affiliate spent $279,000 on mailers, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing in the Whatcom County. The group’s PAC raised a total of $676,666, including $275,000 from Steyer’s campaign committee.
With the domestic market collapsing, coal producers see the export terminal—along with two others proposed in the Pacific Northwest—as a vital gateway to new customers. Coal interests gave more than $140,000 to Save Whatcom, a PAC that supported the four opposing candidates for the council. Cloud Peak Energy, a coal producer that plans to ship 16 million tons annually through Cherry Point, kicked in $50,000, as did Ohio-based Global Coal Sales. A Houston couple that owns one of the largest private coal reserves in the country and has financial interests in Arch Coal, another producer lobbying for the port facilities, donated $32,000.
Carl Weimer, an incumbent on the council whom environmental groups supported, told The Nation that the ports were the pivotal issue in the council elections, even though candidates could not take an explicit stance on them because the council operates as a judicial body. “The coal terminal brought out a lot of volunteers on our side,” Weimer said. (He won his race 56 to 42.) “It drove a lot of grassroots motivation,” agreed Ken Mann, another incumbent backed by the greens who kept his seat, although he saw the election less as a referendum on coal than a vote of no confidence in an anti-government, anti-science conservative platform.
Weimer and Mann said the unprecedented amount of money spent by the candidates and by outside groups changed the local elections significantly. “I have never seen so many mailers in Whatcom County as I did this year,” said Mann. But both councilmen were hesitant to give too much credit to outside influence. “I think the money sort of cancelled [itself] out,” Mann said. “Frankly, yes—the money was great to have. But with enough smart people and organization you can overcome money and get the message out and rally the voters.”
It’s that combination of money and mobilization that could make climate a real issue in future races. “Our public so strongly supports our policies and positions that as long as we don’t just cede terrain, and invest enough to get the message out, we’ve got a very good shot,” said Navin Nayak. He acknowledged that in bigger election years environmental groups would be outspent by energy and other industry interests. “Our huge advantage is our ability to run a grassroots program built in advance. The Koch brothers don’t have the energy or the message to go door-to-door.”
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