Political Climate Change

Voters really do care about climate and health. So how’d the GOP take Congress?

November 05, 2014

The midterm elections are over, the results are in, and Republicans have taken the Hill—capturing control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House of Representatives. With the GOP in charge of Congress, environmental advocates see tough fights ahead on a number of key issues, ranging from clean water to carbon pollution.

What makes the GOP’s gains so frustrating to conservationists is that they come in spite of indications that the environment—perennially pooh-poohed as a nonissue for voters and subsequently given short shrift on the campaign trail—is actually gaining ground. Polls indicate global warming is a growing concern for voters (7 out of 10 Americans support reducing carbon pollution from power plants), and presidential candidates will almost certainly have to deal with it in 2016, with outright denial being a potentially significant liability.

Why, then, the strong results for Republicans, whose leaders have laid out an agenda that seeks to undermine bedrock environmental laws and obstruct progress on climate? Read Ezra Klein for a fuller explanation of how the GOP can romp in midterm elections even though the party and its policies are less popular than Democrats. But it essentially comes down to these three factors.

1. Republican voters tend to be older, and older votes tend to turn out more in non-presidential election years.

2. A president’s party almost always loses some ground in midterm elections.

3. Republicans have done a good job over the last few decades of drawing legislative districts to help them hold onto and gain seats, even when voters favor Democrats. (It’s a little thing called gerrymandering.)

This election was also largely a referendum on an economy that isn’t growing as quickly as the nation would like and a president dealing with low approval ratings as a result (along with voter dissatisfaction with his administration’s handling of everything from the new health care law rollout to ISIS). 

So that’s why the Republicans took Congress, and why it doesn’t mean they have a mandate to start gutting environmental laws and obstructing President Obama’s efforts to fight climate change. But they’ll likely try anyway, based on recent legislative history and campaign rhetoric. (Here are five ways how.)

Environmental advocates are planning for a struggle akin to 1994, when midterm elections swept Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America” into power. The new GOP House majority attacked the EPA and key environmental laws, and conservationists fought back, resulting in more than one million phone calls to Congress in protest. (You know how that worked out for Newt.)

Regardless of GOP gains, White House spokesman Josh Earnest indicated yesterday that President Obama is still planning to pursue executive action on key issues, including climate. He’s also building the groundwork for his potential Democratic successor to do even more as public demand for climate action grows.

"There are still too many Republicans in Congress who even deny the basic scientific fact that climate change is occurring and something that policy makers should be concerned about," Earnest told reporters. "So the president will use his executive action to take some additional steps, but he’s also going to continue to talk about this issue in a way that lays the groundwork for action by future presidents and future Congresses."

Obama also has the power to veto environmentally damaging legislation he doesn’t like—looking at you, Keystone XL—with Republicans lacking the votes to overcome him on their own.

“There will likely be a very direct back and forth between the Congress and the White House,” says David Goldston, the government affairs director for NRDC (which publishes Earthwire). “In a way that could actually be helpful. In a pitched battle, it will become much clearer what’s at stake, and there’s no indication of the public backing away from support for environmental policies.” For the 2016 presidential race, Goldston says, making the differences between the two parties plain could aid candidates who support environmental causes.

Until then, President Obama’s red veto pen could be the greenest thing in Washington.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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