WHITHER THE GOP?
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the fall 1998-winter 1999 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter
A casual look at one governor’s recent press releases is revealing:
- Governor celebrates American Heritage River designation…
- Governor signs bill to provide solar energy incentives…
- Governor announces four new bird conservation areas…
- Governor takes steps to clean up PCBs…
- Governor announces agreement to restore river flows…
- Governor announces diesel bus emissions testing…
- Governor celebrates American Heritage River designation…
Now add one more: Governor gets re-elected by a million votes.
Is this governor one of those liberal Democrats who romped to victory on November 3?
He’s New York’s George Pataki, a conservative, tax-cutting Republican who has acted aggressively to protect his state’s air, water, lands and wildlife. Republican congressional candidates who lost (and the shell-shocked anti-environmental leaders whom they followed over the cliff) could learn a lot from George Pataki.
House leaders currently regrouping with a narrower majority and Senate brass pondering why the Republicans failed to pick up seats can restore the party’s fortunes by heeding one simple message, which GOP leaders like Governor Pataki have had no trouble understanding: Americans value a clean environment and will vote accordingly. They want their elected officials to respond to the popular will in favor of measures to ensure breathable air, drinkable water, and conservation of public lands, wilderness and wildlife.
New York was not the only example demonstrating that Americans voted for environmental protection in the election. Nine of the thirteen “Dirty Dozen” candidates targeted for defeat by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) were sending out resumes on Nov. 4. An astonishing 88% of the House, Senate and gubernatorial contests that were priority campaigns for the Sierra Club went the club’s way. The victors included pro-environment Republican House members Connie Morella (MD, LCV 93%*), Marge Roukema (NJ, LCV 72%), and Nancy Johnson (CT, LCV 86%), all of whom have been named REP’s Environmental Heroes.
A number of Republicans with a history of anti-environmental votes went down in defeat.
Here are just a few examples:
North Carolina: Hog farm waste was one of the issues on the minds of North Carolinians when they voted to fire GOP Senator Lauch Faircloth (LCV 20%), himself a hog farm owner whose operation was fined for a 1996 spill that polluted two waterways.
Wisconsin: Republican Representative Mark Neumann (LCV 34%), who vowed to “wage war” on the EPA and refused to take a position on a proposed copper and zinc mine, had several factors in his favor in his race against Senator Russ Feingold (LCV 100%). The Democratic incumbent refused to accept PAC money or air negative ads. But the environment was clearly Neumann’s Achilles heel; 53% of the voters who re-elected Feingold mentioned Neumann’s poor environmental record in post-election polling.
Washington: Before Nov. 3, GOP Representative Linda Smith was no one to tangle with. She had won every race she ever entered, including a write-in primary victory four years ago, thanks to a determined band of supporters dubbed “Linda’s Army.” But Smith (LCV 21%), who almost always voted the timber industry’s way on forest issues, lost her bid to unseat Democratic Senator Patty Murray (LCV 93%) by an unexpectedly wide margin.
Nevada: Republican Rep. Jon Ensign (LCV 34%) fell short in his race against Democratic Senator Harry Reid (LCV 67%), a two-term veteran who credited the environment with his victory. “This race has been about the environment,” Reid declared on election night. “It’s been about Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River, nuclear waste and Walker Lake.” That wasn’t just a throwaway line either. LCV polls showed that 46% of Republicans in Nevada named the environment as an important issue.
The Evidence Mounts
Several polls showed that the environment was one of several key issues voters had in mind when punching their ballots. The Sierra Club reported that polls conducted by Greenberg Quinland Research before Election Day showed that the environment was one of the determining factors in close races. The Los Angeles Times exit poll showed that 10 percent of Californians who voted for Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (LCV 93%) identified the environment as their top issue. That segment of the electorate may have been the key to Boxer’s come-from-behind victory.
Polls also show that the Clinton sex scandal had little impact on the election outcome. MSNBC’s national exit poll showed that people who voted to express their anger at the president’s behavior were canceled out by voters who went to the polls to support him. Sixty percent of the poll respondents said their votes were not intended to show either support or opposition to the president. They had other things on their minds, such as the environment.
The pro-environment trend also was visible in state elections. New Jersey residents voted to spend $1 billion to protect 1 million acres of farmland and forests from urban sprawl: 20% of the state’s total land area. The ballot measure was supported by Governor Christine Whitman (a Republican, by the way).
Voters in Montana, a state built on hard-rock mining, banned the polluting cyanide leach process in new or expanded gold and silver mines.
Coloradans and South Dakotans voted in tough curbs on smelly hog farms that threaten air and water resources.
Alaskans refused to permit roadside billboards to mar their state’s breathtaking scenery.
Authorization of land purchase and outdoor recreation bonds won 73% approval in Florida.
Michigan voters, urged on by Republican Governor John Engler, approved a $675 million bond issue to fund river and lake cleanup, pollution prevention, and waterfront restoration.
Republican Governors such as Engler and Pataki were re-elected easily because they have taken a problem-solving approach to governing, focusing on issues that voters have said they care about, including the environment. As the New York Times put it in a Nov. 8 editorial, the successful Republican governors “embraced pragmatism, ideological flexibility and impatience with litmus tests… They embraced the use of public resources for children’s health, schools, the environment and job placement for the poor. They carefully avoided [Newt] Gingrich’s divisive, wedge-driving rhetoric.”
Whither the GOP?
Will the congressional leadership learn the right lessons from the 1998 election? Will they emulate the successful path taken by governors like Pataki? Will this be the start of a new spirit of support for conservation and environmental protection among top GOP elected officials and party leaders?
REP fervently hopes so, and we’ll continue working to make it happen, but we won’t hold our breath. As the Times’ editorial pointed out, the hard right is “in denial about the successes forged by Republican gubernatorial candidates.” The militants insist that redoubled ideological fervor, with its baggage of litmus tests and fist-pounding stridency, is the ticket to renewed GOP electoral success.
The numbers in the post-Gingrich Congress are not in the militants’ favor, however. The minority of House Republicans who have consistently voted for the environment now hold the balance of power in a more evenly divided House. Short-sighted crusades to weaken environmental protection laws are not likely to get as far as they did in the past two congressional sessions.
Should our party’s leadership come to its senses and pay attention to their governors, they would do well to emulate one of Pataki’s predecessors, a fellow by the name of Theodore Roosevelt.
As the Grand Forks (ND) Herald put it in a post-election editorial:
“Conservation is a winning issue for all kinds of reasons. And Republicans should remember that the founder of modern conservationism, Theodore Roosevelt, also ranks among the most respected Republicans of them all. The Republican Party should consider embracing conservationism as a centerpiece issue. With the vigor of Roosevelt, with support of a strong majority, the party could reclaim this bedrock American issue and make it its own.”
To which REP can only add a hearty Amen!