The “canary in a coal mine” is a metaphor originating from the time when caged birds were carried into the mines as an early warning system; the canary would die before methane, and carbon gases reached levels hazardous to humans.
This column, like others in the Canaries in the Coal Mine series, is intended to raise early warnings of dangers that might be lurking beyond the immediate attention of clean energy advocates and climate defenders. Today’s cautionary tale is about the 2018 midterm elections and what they could mean for federal clean energy and climate policies and programs.
The canaries are warning of overconfidence that either or both chambers of Congress will turn Democratic after the polls close on November 6th. They are also tweeting about what the balloting means for the clean energy and climate communities and the dangers of putting all their eggs in the same party’s basket.
The 2018 midterms offer the first real chance, since Trump ascendance, for voters to do more than “write a letter to the Times” expressing their outrage over his toxic personality and Fossil First policies.
Who emerges victorious on the morning of November 7th will go a long way in determining federal clean energy and climate policies through 2023.
The number 1 goal for 2018 is clear enough--elect a majority of senators and/or representatives who are at least willing to act as an emergency brake on the Administration’s energy and environmental policies. Note that nowhere in the goal statement have I used the words Republican or Democrat. More on this in a bit.
First, a caution is in order. My feathered friends tell me that achieving the election goal is unlikely--in its own right--to stop the assault, even should both chambers turn pro-environment. However, combined with the mounting number of pending and probable lawsuits alleging its failure to play by the rules of law and science a pro-environment Congress can put the Administration in check. Checkmate would then be possible at the time of the 2020 national elections.
The speed with which a pro-environment Congress and White House could place the nation back on the path to a low-carbon economy and a sustainable environment depends greatly upon the outcome of the 2018 midterms.
Face it; the Trump Administration is succeeding in its efforts to lead the nation back to pre-1970 environmental protections. The process of rescinding or substantially revising major environmental protections like the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the U.S. rule, opening federal lands to fossil energy exploration and extraction are well underway.
Trump and company started their second year in power where they left off the first year. The Big D and his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, just announced two separate and significant actions in support of its Fossil First policy. First, Trump imposed substantial tariffs on photovoltaic panels coming into the country from China and other parts of Asia and the world. A levy that will raise the price of solar in the U.S. reducing installations by 20 percent and causing the loss of 23,000 jobs this year alone. The decision was Donald’s warning to China that he wasn’t afraid of starting a trade war, further proof of his disregard for the environment and his ignorance of the economic importance of clean energy alternatives to today’s economy.
The second action was EPA’s announcement that it would be doing away with the policy of “once-in always-in” covering how major sources of hazardous air pollutants are regulated under section 112(g) of the Clean Air Act. More precisely the announcement redefined the word “major,” as in the phrase a major industrial polluting facility.
The existing rule, as applied for more than two decades, classifies as “major” an industrial facility emitting 10 tons/year of one or more than 25 tons/year of a combination of the listed 189 hazardous toxic air pollutants, e.g., benzene, dioxin, and lead. Once declared a major source of any of these pollutants the facility would remain subject to strict control standards always. Get it--once-in always-in? The new rule lets a facility dropping below the 10/25 tons per year thresholds for any amount of time off the hook by holding them to the lower standard.
The new interpretation creates a loophole that according to the Sierra Club, will result in huge amounts of toxic mercury, arsenic, and lead being poured into the air we breathe, meaning this change is a threat to anyone who breathes and a benefit only to dangerous corporate polluters.
The new policy was announced with the blessing of the Republican leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In this and other regulatory matters, the current Republican majorities in both the House and Senate have shown themselves consistently complicit with White House efforts to lower environmental defenses.
Currently, two of the three branches of the federal government are controlled by climate deniers. The low quality and highly partisan character of an unusually large percentage of Trump’s judicial nominees and the willingness of the Republican Senate majority to confirm them places the one remaining check on the executive and legislative authority at risk. Changing the composition of the Senate will change its willingness to confirm unqualified judges to the federal bench.
How important are the midterms to the protection of today’s environment and continued national progress towards a low-carbon economy? The only possible answer is VERY!
There are good reasons to believe that climate and clean energy can emerge winners from the ooze of the November midterms. It will not happen on its own; it cannot happen on its own. It will only happen if people seize the initiative and make it happen.
Capitalizing on the opportunity presented by the 2018 Congressional elections first requires some understanding of the various forces at work in today’s political environment. I hope that this and subsequent articles over the course of the next several weeks will contribute to that understanding.
Today’s article offers an overview of the field, e.g., the number of seats up for election, voter turnouts, historical and emerging trends, individual races that might reflect trends happening nationwide. It also begins to introduce topics covered in future articles, e.g., the impact of identity politics. and to build a to-do list for the clean energy and climate community.
Finally, this first installment in the series doesn’t quite get to the to-do list portion of the program. It is more about the why of doing it than the what. Bear with me through the series and we’ll get there. I promise.
By the numbers--
Placing the midterms in some perspective, history favors the out-of-power party in the first Congressional elections following the inauguration of a president--particularly in the lower chamber. The party of the president has lost House seats in 16 of the last 18 midterm elections. The mean loss for a president’s party in postwar midterms is 25 House seats. The median is 22.
Every president, since World War II, with an approval rating below 50 percent has suffered a double-digit loss of House seats at the halfway mark of either his first or second term. Proximity to the 50 percent mark seems not to relate to the number of losses.
As Table 1 shows, the Democrats dropped 52 House seats with a Clinton approval rating of 48 percent in 1994 and 63 House seats with an Obama rating of 45 percent in 2010. Trump’s current 38 percent rating correlates to George W. Bush’s 37 percent rating in 2006 when the Republicans lost 30 House races.
Past election cycles have also shown a strong correlation between the performance of the out-of-power party in districts won by the president in the previous general election. There were seven special elections to fill Congressional vacancies in 2017. Democrats performed well in each of them, including in the districts they didn’t win. They’ve also done well in over 60 state-level legislative special elections, as well as taking the Governor’s mansions in the pivotal states of New Jersey and Virginia.
Table 2 lists the results of the seven 2017 Congressional special elections versus the district/state partisan leanings based on the results of the 2016 presidential election. It suggests the trend is intact.
A 2018 special election battle is brewing in Pennsylvania to fill the remainder of the term of Congressman Tim Murphy (R). Murphy resigned after allegations of an extra-marital affair surfaced a few months ago. All eyes will be on the race; it is likely to draw a steady stream of celebrities from both parties—the President not included. I suspect Trump will be told to keep his head down, mouth shut and thumbs still for fear he backs the wrong horse.
Pennsylvania’s 18th District is heavily white, has strong union ties and in registrations leans Democratic. The Republican Murphy is said to have won and kept his seat since 2003 because of heavily committed conservatives turning out to vote. Given a demographic reflective of rust-belt and rural states, the election of a Democrat to fill the seat would bode well overall for Democratic chances in the House in 2018.
Two other special elections that will be held before November to fill the seats of other resigning Congressmen--one because of improper conduct towards a female staffer (AZ, 8th District) and the other to head up the state’s Business Roundtable (OH, 12th District). Both are considered safe Republican contests.
The House is seeing an unusually large number of incumbent drop-outs from the 2018 midterms. There are currently 15 House seats being vacated by Democrats and 32 by Republicans. Reasons why so many sitting members have chosen to hang up their skates vary. Some are facing stiff primary challenges or experiencing hostile voter reaction to the Trump presidency—preferring to go out winners. Others, like Joe Barton (R-TX, whose naked selfie is being passed around the Web, would rather not have to answer for their transgressions. Nineteen have tossed headwear into the ring to run for higher office, e.g., Representative McSally (R-AZ) who is running to succeed Senator Flake (R-AZ).
Between the House and the Senate, the House has historically proven the more achievable midterm target for the out-of-power party.
To capture the House, Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats over their current 194. The Senate remains a more elusive target for the Democrats in November when they will be defending 26 of the 34 seats up for grabs.
History and geography favor the Republican incumbents in 2018. Today, ten of the Democrats’ at-risk seats are in states Trump won, and five of those are in states Trump won by 18 points or more. In comparison, only one Republican senator in a state Clinton won (Dean Heller in Nevada) is on the ballot. It would not be a surprise for these numbers to change given the continued outing of sexual predators in political ranks.
Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight sees the possibility of it raining on the Democrats’ November parade:
Just how bad is this map for Democrats? It’s bad enough that it may be the worst Senate map that any party has faced ever, or at least since direct election of senators began in 1913. It’s bad enough that Democrats could conceivably gain 35 or 40 seats in the House…and not pick up the two seats they need in the Senate. (emphasis added)
If the math of this year’s midterms were not complicated enough, there are the matters of morality and individual, group and party identity at play. The action and interaction of these factors are far from clear. That they are having and will continue to have an impact in both the primaries and the general elections is certain.
A case in point—the Alabama special Senate election
Consider the Alabama special election to fill the seat of Attorney General Sessions. For the first time in a quarter century the voters of Alabama—one of the reddest states in the nation—elected a Democratic senator to replace one of the reddest politicians in the nation.
The December election pitted Judge Roy Moore, a far-right Republican, against the conservative (Blue Dog) Democrat Doug Jones. Both men were known to Alabama voters.
Moore was twice elected as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He was twice removed from that same office for refusing to follow federal court orders. Moore, a fundamentalist Christian, has a long unapologetic history of misogyny, racism, and bigotry.
Jones, a former U.S. attorney, successfully prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan in a case involving the bombing of a Black Baptist church and secured an indictment against a terrorist bomber who had struck multiple targets including the Atlanta Olympic Park.
Moore was accused of sexual harassment by several women, one of whom was a teenager at the time of the alleged acts. Initial outrage by establishment Republicans and others, including the President’s own, initially served to distance the national party from the candidate. Most outside of Alabama and many inside thought the allegations credible.[i] Senate leaders of Republican persuasion threatened to prevent Moore’s being seated should he win election.
Ultimately, politics won out. The President and many in his party valued maintenance of their Senate majority over morality, and they ended up campaigning and contributing to Moore’s candidacy. Jones walked away as the winner with a little over 50 percent of the vote to Moore’s 48.3 percent[ii]. It was the first time in a quarter century that Alabama elected a Democratic Senator.
Many see the special Senate election in Alabama as a harbinger of things to come, i.e., a year of the Democrat upsets. Perhaps it will be but the reasons why may not be as obvious as some may think. How then to interpret the results of the 2017 special elections?
With all the publicity surrounding Judge Moore’s actions and views regarding women, Trump’s history in this regard, and the growing national dialogue on the treatment of women by men, a reasonable hypothesis would be “sex” played a significant, if not outsized, role in Alabama’s special Senate election.
For purposes of this discussion, gender is being used to illustrate how understanding the influence of an issue or combination of demographic issues, e.g., age, race, party affiliation, can contribute to crafting an advocacy strategy for the coming midterms.
With the #MeToo movement playing prominently into today’s public dialogue one would be forgiven for thinking Moore lost the election for having been accused of sexual harassment and having his name attached to a textbook that:
…argued against women running for office and promoted the concept of “stay-at-home daughters,” in which girls live at home until they marry, often forgoing formal education and focusing on homemaking skills. Independence is essentially a flaw in a Christian wife, who, Phillips [the book’s co-author] taught, should be willing to call her husband “Lord.”
The book was produced by Vision Forum Ministries and took the position that Christians had a moral obligation not to vote for female candidates. The organization was headed up by the other listed author, Doug Phillips, and closed in 2013 over accusations of sexually predatory behavior, according to Think Progress.
In the aggregate women were 51 percent of all voters in the Alabama election and gave Jones a 16-point edge over Moore. That number, however, doesn’t say nearly enough about how Alabama’s women felt about the candidates. Most importantly, the aggregate number says nothing about whether their feelings translated into votes. Neither does the number say much about how Moore’s performance compared to Clinton’s in the 2016 general election. A comparison possibly having some predictive value regarding national trends.
White women made up 31 percent of the total number of voters, voting 63 percent in favor of Moore. Black women made up 17 percent of the total number of voters, overwhelmingly casting 98 percent of those ballots for Jones.
In the aggregate women were 52 percent of all voters in the 2016 presidential election and gave Clinton a 12-point edge over Trump. White women made up 37 percent of the total number of 2016 voters, voting 52 percent in favor of Moore. Black and Latino women comprised 13 percent of the total number of 2016 voters, casting 98 and 69 percent respectively of those ballots for Clinton.[iii] [iv]
The take away from the above set of percentages is the Alabama balloting fairly reflected the pattern in the 2016 national elections. The two most notable differences being Jones beat Clinton’s overall percentage of women voters by 4 percent (16 – 12) and white women were more willing to accept Trump (63 percent) over Moore (52 percent).
Given Clinton’s failure to win over White Women in the 2016 presidential balloting, the Alabama result could turn out to be a significant result if it is reflected in state and national midterm polling. Much, of course, depends upon the individual candidates and in how the national parties respond to the sexual allegations being leveled at various members of Congress and party officials, e.g., rapid retirements and the return of campaign funds.
Of the two notables, I would place most emphasis on the better performance of Trump than Moore. Even generally more conservative Southern women appeared more likely influenced by the types of allegations, e.g., the age of one of the accusers and belief in stay-at-home women, than by the believability of the claims.
By roughly a 20-point margin, Alabama women thought the allegations of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore were true. The breakdown by candidate was 57 percent of the women voting for Jones believing the allegations and 41 percent of those voting for Moore.
Whether or not Alabamans believed the allegations against Moore, the overwhelming consensus of voters was it didn’t matter. Fully 88 percent of all voters discounted the accusations saying they were either no factor or only one of other factors they considered.
The result, I believe, partially reflects a voter’s tendency to project their values into their choice of party more than the choice of candidate in an election. Both Jones and Moore supporters saw each candidate sharing their [moral] beliefs. If asked whether they value sexual harassment, I doubt most Moore’s voters would answer in the affirmative. Moreover, I would believe them.
Trump approval/disapproval rating was even among all voters (48 percent each). More voters indicated support for Trump was a motivating factor in how they voted than those wishing to register their opposition. Nevertheless, Moore lost an election in a state that Trump won by 28 points, with 62 percent of the vote.
Several factors in the election seemed particularly important to the outcome. The first was turnout. Before the balloting, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) had estimated participation at 25 percent of eligible voters, which would be consistent with other off-year elections. The final number was over 40 percent.
The reasons for the higher turnout are myriad, including the drama of Steve Bannon versus the Republican establishment, Trump’s tweets and twitters, national attention on sexual har-assment and the accusations against Moore. Most likely of all is how the media cast the vote as a preview of things to come in the midterms. Trump does ignite voter passions—particularly of the Democratic throw-the-bum out kind. Although, there does appear to be a growing number of Republicans dreaming of the day.
There are also two demographic cohorts that should remain at the top of the lists of every election strategist—Black women and voters under the age of 44—and for many of the same reasons.
Black voters in general and Black women, in particular, had much to do with Jones’ victory. As summed up by one analyst:
Black voters were informed and mobilized to go vote and did so even in the face of significant barriers.
Black voters made up 29 percent of the Alabama electorate in the special election—more even than came out in 2012 for Obama. Black women consistently show a near 98 percent support rate across all demographics, e.g., age and education, for Democratic candidates. For comparison purposes, Black men voted 67 percent for Clinton to Trump’s 27 percent in the 2016 presidential race.
The Alabama senate race is not the only contest in which Black women made a difference. According to Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee Chair We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party….
As Perez goes on to say support from Black supporters [men and women] cannot be taken for granted. Compare the Jones victory in Alabama to Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, just outside the city of Atlanta. A special election in June 2017 (see Table 2) was won by Representative Karen Handel (R-GA).
The 6th is a traditionally Republican district but was a district that looked prepared to revolt against President Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton only lost the district by one point in 2016. Although Ossoff came close to winning, he ended up cigar-less at the end of the day.
He ran as a moderate, pro-growth centrist Democrat…stressed…economic moderation distanced himself from Nancy Pelosi…rejected core lefty policy demands like single-payer healthcare…defended diversity and multiculturalism, vowing to [strongly] defend voting rights for African Americans; running endorsements from Khizr Khan, the Muslim Gold Star father who took on Trump; and declaring he will never shy away from standing with the LGBT community, publicly, forcefully, with everything I’ve got.
The race stands as the most expensive in history for a House seat, due to outside contributors from both sides. Congresswomen Handel was not the ideal Republican candidate having gained national attention when she quit a breast-cancer charity because of its ties to an abortion provider. Ossoff’s loss was partially attributed to his failure to energize Black voters. They simply didn’t turn out, continuing the trend that was seen in the 2016 presidential voting.
Jones’ victory and Governor Northam’s (D) in Virginia are all the more noticeable for their having bucked the 2016 trend. As shown in Table 3, Black women voted at lower rates (- 7.2 percent) as well in 2016, but at a rate higher than Black men (- 11.3 percent).
Just as voters below the age of 44 were found to have voted for Senator Jones over Moore by a margin of over 22 points, younger voters have shown themselves not only more supportive of Clinton in 2016 (see Graph 1) but of being more accepting of the causes and concerns of climate change. More to the point, these voters list environment higher on their list of concerns come election time—no matter their party affiliation. Not to state the obvious, younger voters are the future.
Being of the older American class, I can say there’s less of a political future with voters over the age of 70-something. Notwithstanding that 70-something is the new 40-something, it is not to say older voters aren’t important. If for no other reason that they naturally vote in high numbers.
The trick with younger voters is developing a message that motivates them to act on their concerns. The question of messaging is key—no matter the cohort one is trying to mobilize. It is the question I will leave readers with until the next installment of An Election Year To-Do List for Climate Defenders the Canaries Go Tweet, Tweet, Tweet.
In the meantime, this new 40-something has other things to do. Click into www.civilnotion.com in a few days and see if I can succeed in motivating you.
[i] There is no irrefutable evidence, at this time, of the truth of Moore’s having sexually harassed his accusers.
[ii] The remainder of the votes went to various write-in candidates.
[iii] Note the percentages for Alabama voters do not always equal 100 because of the number of write-in votes that totaled approximately 1.7 percent of the ballots cast or because some questions were simply not answered or answered by enough respondents to be of statistical significance.
[iv] Percentages have been taken from several studies and not been normalized, e.g., the 2016 breakdown of votes by race and gender list White, Black, Latino and Other, while the data sets for Alabama are Black and White. The value of the numbers for purposes of this discussion is to indicate trends.
Photo credit: Pixabay
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.