More Blue Doesn’t Necessarily Mean More Green

By DAVID JENKINS, REP’s government affairs director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Dave delivered this speech to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Roanoke, Virginia, on October 17, 2008.


Thank you, it is a pleasure to be here.

Let me start off by giving you a better idea of what Republicans for Environmental Protection is all about. Our goals are to improve the Republican Party’s stance on environmental issues, to elect truly green Republicans, and to advance the original conservative philosophy—articulated by the likes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk—that requires us to be good stewards and protect the interests of future generations.

The reason these goals are important has little to do with partisan politics. President Nixon probably put it best when he said:

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.”

If we are to consistently improve the quality of our environment over the long term, environmental issues must become less polarized.

Anything that polarizes environmental issues, be it the irresponsible rants of Rush Limbaugh, or the partisan tilt of many environmental groups, creates a political setting where environmental progress is held hostage to ever-shifting political winds—and where two steps forward are likely to be followed with two steps backwards.

The good news is that polling shows that Republican voters are getting greener. There is not a big disparity between Democrat and Republican voters when it comes to supporting strong laws to protect the environment. The bad news—at least from our perspective—is that electing green Republicans to Congress, and keeping them there, is often very difficult.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Our nation has many congressional districts that have been gerrymandered to be safe and allow candidates to play only to their hard-core base. In many states, the Republican primary process is more hospitable to base-focused candidates, and the most pro-environment Republicans tend to run in competitive swing districts, where they are likely to face strong competition from the Democrats.

In the 2006 election, REP endorsed 30 congressional candidates. Twelve of those lost. This year we have only 18 that we can enthusiastically support, and a number of those are in tight races, such as Representatives Mark Kirk in Illinois, Chris Shays in Connecticut, and Dave Reichert in Washington.

Now I know many of my colleagues in the environmental community are salivating at the prospects of having 60 Democrats in the U.S. Senate and a wider Democrat majority in the House. But I don’t believe that such an outcome, if it happens, will necessarily result in stronger environmental protection.

We just witnessed how quickly politics trumped environmental concern over offshore oil drilling when the Democratic leadership, under political pressure from Republicans, caved on the Outer Continental Shelf drilling moratorium.

The problem is bipartisan in nature. The public still does not really understand the geologic realities we face with respect to oil, and until they do, they will continue to support more domestic drilling in response to high energy costs—and politicians, be they Democrat or Republican, will be tempted to agree with their constituents.

Another problem is the clout of the so called “Blue Dog” Democrats. Just as the environment benefited when we had 30-40 pro-environment Republicans join with Democrats to block bad environmental proposals—such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—it often suffers when we have 30-40 not-so-green “Blue Dogs” join forces with a substantial number of not-so-green Republicans.

Of course, the biggest environmental issue out there is climate change. How will this election affect the prospects for passing meaningful climate change legislation next year? A change in the White House will certainly help, but I am not convinced that the situation in the Senate will change very much.

If Mark and Tom Udall win their races in Colorado and New Mexico, that adds two pro-climate votes, but most of the seats the Democrats are eyeing for gains are seats that are currently held by Republicans who either co-sponsored the Lieberman-Warner climate bill or who voted correctly in the June cloture vote on that legislation. I am referring to: Susan Collins, John Sununu, John Warner, Elizabeth Dole, Norm Coleman, and Gordon Smith. 

Replacing these Republicans with Democrats doesn’t change the math very much, and I believe such a shift actually has the potential to make the next climate bill even more of a partisan football than the one that crashed and burned this summer. In fact, Susan Collins and Norm Coleman—both of whom we have endorsed— are very important to crafting a bipartisan climate bill that can be sustained long-term.

Replacing Senator Coleman with Al Franken would have about the same chilling effect on bipartisanship as replacing Senator Joe Lieberman with Ann Coulter.

For anyone who cares about the environment, a one-party strategy is very shortsighted, and is unlikely to produce the kind of progress we need. More blue doesn’t always mean more green.

It was bipartisan majorities that gave us our landmark environmental laws in the 1960s and ’70s, and it will take a strong bipartisan majority to resolve the energy and climate challenges we face today.

Thank you.