Environmental Issues in the 1996 Elections

by James D. Moore, Ph.D.

The 1996 election was the battle of the interest groups. Organized labor spent over $35 million to defeat vulnerable first-term Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Business groups countered with their usual flood of money, approximately $240 million funneled mainly to key Republican congressional committee members. Continuing a pattern that has developed over the past twenty years, the source of campaign money was just as important as the amount of money raised and spent in elections across the country.

Environmental organizations across the country leaped into the fray with targeted campaign strategies of their own Nationally, the Sierra Club began running its first independent expenditure television ads. These television spots were first seen in Oregon's January U.S. Senate race to replace Bob Packwood. The National League of Conservation Voters decided to oppose the "Dirty Dozen" candidates, those with the worst environmental records in congressional races across the country. In state and local races, environmental groups sought to flex their political muscles with campaigns to elect those in agreement with their stands on the environment.

The results of this flurry of campaign involvement have been decidedly mixed. The lesson of 1996, as it has been for decades, is that money provides access to legitimacy in a political campaign, but it cannot assure a victory. The Republicans targeted by labor won about 75 percent of their races. Although this has been touted as a failure for labor, when compared to an historical victory rate of greater than 90 percent for House incumbents, it can be seen as a victory. Candidates who received contributions from businesses had a higher success rate, but they faced relatively easy races. A characteristic of interest groups is that they give the bulk of their money to secure incumbents to garner favor for the coming season of governing, not the biennial season of campaigning. The same business groups that currently give to the powerful Republican committee chairs gave to the powerful Democratic committee chairs when the Democrats controlled the Congress.

The 1996 election also brought mixed results for environmental groups. Nationally, of the Dirty Dozen, seven lost, five won. The Sierra Club's independent expenditure campaign was not a major issue in any single race--it simply got drowned out by competing advertising campaigns.

Many of these campaign strategies and themes were tried first in Oregon. After Bob Packwood's resignation from the U.S. Senate in September 1995, Oregon became a testing ground for national campaign themes. Oregonians endured an incredible series of campaigns and elections from November 1995 through the 1996 presidential election.

Oregon's campaigns became a microcosm of the high points, the low points, and the confusing points for environmental groups entering into political campaigns. The Senate race for Bob Packwood's vacant seat in Oregon pitted Ron Wyden, a Portland Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 through 1996, against Gordon Smith, a Republican from rural eastern Oregon, who served in the state senate from 1992 to 1996, the last two years as senate president.

Because Wyden and Smith both won their primaries relatively easily, environmental groups focused mainly on the special general election in late January 1996. Neither candidate was a particular friend of environmental causes. Wyden specialized in urban issues and issues affecting the elderly, both of great importance to his highly urban district in Portland. Smith owns a successful food processing plant in Pendleton with an inconsistent environmental record and took few stands on environmental issues during his term as a state senator. Environmental groups lined up against Smith, but not necessarily for Wyden. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters ran a series of independent television ads, aired primarily in the Portland area. These ads depicted Smith as a flagrant polluter, a flouter of the state's environmental laws, and a friend of anti-environmentalists. Smith had a difficult time countering these ads--they were highly visible, the electorate remembered them, and the facts in question were so complex that they defied simple counter messages.

However, the special Senate election took an interesting turn a few weeks before election day A union group ran a radio ad that accused Smith of murder because there had been industrial accidents in which employees died at his plant. In response, Wyden unilaterally placed a moratorium on negative advertising. Smith did not stop his negative ads, noting that the independent expenditure ads from environmental groups continued to run. Negative campaigning became the number one issue in the final weeks of the election, drowning out all other issues. Wyden won by 18,000 votes (about 1 percent).

The day after Wyden's win, an interesting phenomenon occurred at national media outlets. Unions, pro-choice groups, environmental groups, and senior citizens groups inundated the outlets with messages and faxes, all claiming credit for Wyden's win. However, there is no empirical evidence that any single group was responsible for putting Wyden over the top. Indeed, geography is a better explanation. Wyden won just enough votes in the Portland area to counter Smith's overwhelming victory in the more rural parts of Oregon.

Environmental groups entered the national political season energized by the Wyden victory. As polling across the country began to focus on hot issues in the 1996 election, it became clear that environmental concerns were among the top five influential election issues in all parts of the country. But these same polls also showed that embracing environmental issues would not necessarily make a difference for candidates without strong environmental records. The reason for this is simple--voters do not change their minds about issues they see as critical. In 1996, most pro-environment voters voted Democratic or not at all. Most of the opposition (Wise Use supporters, War on the West voters, multiple-use advocates) voted Republican or not at all.

This reaction mirrored a trend that had been going on for years within the national environmental groups. These groups tend to support Democrats overwhelmingly Among the national Dirty Dozen were eleven Republican targets and one Democrat. The Oregon Natural Resources Council supported twenty-two Democrats and one Republican for state and local offices. The old days of environmental issues crossing party lines are over. Environmental organizations are now JUSt one of the many Democratic interest groups playing partisan politics. Even business PACs give proportionately more to their putative opposition than environmental groups do (in 1996,35 percent to Democrats, 65 percent to Republicans).

Oregon again provides a wonderful case study of how the environment played in the 1996 general election. Environmental groups were concerned primarily with the senate race to replace retiring Mark Hatfield and with three ballot measures. The senate race pitted the same Gordon Smith (who lost to Wyden in January) against Democrat Tom Bruggere, a software company founder active on government commissions, but who had never run for elective office. The three key measures on a very crowded ballot were initiatives to repeal restrictions on bear and cougar hunting, to expand the Oregon bottle bill, and to prohibit live stock from entering polluted streams. The national environmental groups focused on the Senate race; local environmental groups added the three ballot measures to their electoral activity.

Once again, environmental groups targeted Gordon Smith for what they saw as his weak environmental record. They highlighted his company's regulatory fines, his plant's water pollution, and his use of waste oil to reduce dust on dirt roads. Environmental groups applauded Tom Bruggere for creating a wetland on the campus of his high tech company The news media covered all of this with front page headlines. The National League of Conservation Voters ran independent expenditure ads targeting Smith as the first of the Dirty Dozen who deserved defeat.

There was one problem with this strategy--the Oregon electorate. The focus on environmental issues did not move voters from one candidate to the other. Voters who view the environment as crucial to the way they vote had already made up their minds after the January special election to vote for Bruggere. However, the emphasis on environmental issues did ensure that voters who rated the environment as important would turn out to vote, and, lust maybe, ensured that these voters would contribute money to the Bruggere campaign.

The biggest issue for voters outside the Portland area was the measure to ban livestock from polluted streams. It was here that the national environmental groups simply missed the boat. Oregon's Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, opposed this measure as too simple a solution to a complex problem. Democratic Senate candidate Bruggere had stated on an Oregon environmental group questionnaire that he would support a measure to address the livestock issue. Republican Senate candidate Smith held up this questionnaire, which he carried around in his pocket, as evidence that Bruggere was an "extremist" on environmental issues. Bruggere never satisfactorily explained his stance on this issue. This may have played a role in Bruggere's failure to get Governor Kitzhaber to make a television ad sup porting him. The national environmental groups continued to sponsor ads attacking Smith's record while ignoring the uproar over the live stock ballot measure.

Gordon Smith beat Tom Bruggere by about 50,000 votes. Voters defeated the livestock measure handily (That one of the chief petitioners was arrested for shooting eleven of his neighbors cows shortly before the election certainly did not help.) Voters also defeated the bottle bill expansion, but did not vote to repeal the hunting limitations. That made one environmental victory out of four.

In exit polling, Oregon voters were asked to rank issues in terms of their importance. Of those who said that the environment was most important, 50 percent voted for Gordon Smith and 50 percent for Tom Bruggere. Clearly the an(i-Smith campaign waged by the League of Conservation Voters did not work, probably because the livestock measure struck a raw nerve among many rural Oregonians. In response, they voted against the measure and for Gordon Smith, the Senate candidate who opposed it. Although local environmental groups knew this dynamic was taking place, a lack of funds hampered their efforts to publicize the merits of the livestock measure. The national environmental groups completely missed this local campaign wrinkle and succeeded simply in contributing to the stereotypical view among rural voters that Bruggere was an environmental extremist.

Nationally, the two biggest targets on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list won their elections. Gordon Smith won Oregon's seat in the U.S. Senate, and Helen Chenoweth retained her Idaho seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Chenoweth made headlines when she was quoted as saying there is no salmon crisis because she can buy canned salmon at the grocery store. Although both races were very close, the strong national environmental campaigns made it appear that outside interests were trying to determine local elections.

In addition, the labor campaign against House Republican first-termers targeted Chenoweth. This campaign backfired in staunchly anti-union Idaho. In fact, her opponents request that the unions stop running their ads went unheeded as national decisions again ignored local electoral conditions. The wins in the Dirty Dozen campaign included the re-election of lowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, the defeat of South Dakota Republican Senator Larry Pressler (the only incumbent Senator defeated in 1996), and the defeat of House first-termer Michael Flanagan in Illinois. Michael Flanagan, who had taken the House seat from the former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, had no chance to win re-election in 1996. He was opposed by Chicago's Democratic machine, by virtually all of his district's power bases, and by a host of national interest groups. His defeat is emblematic of much of interest groups' politics in the l990s. When interest groups do not have much money (for example, the National League of Conservation Voters only spent about $430,000 nationally, a little more than one percent of the union campaign), they try to piggy-back onto elections where they can win and claim credit, regardless of the actual impact of their campaigns. It is only the well-financed interest groups that can afford to take over an election and dictate the outcome. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) breaks down campaign contributions by category. There is no "environment" category simply because the dollar amounts are so small relative to the money given by business and labor. The CRP lumps environmental groups into the "ideological/single issue" category along with those who focus on specific issues including the abortion issue, school prayer, and legalizing marijuana.

There are several lessons from 1996 for environmental issues in the political arena. First, environmental groups are no longer non-partisan. They overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates. Until that partisanship is addressed, environmental groups will be viewed as special interest groups, important only to their narrow constituencies and not to the public at large.

Second, national environmental groups need to coordinate much more closely with local groups on the nature of independent expenditure campaigns. As the campaigns in Oregon demonstrated, the local dynamics of a campaign can differ significantly from its national perception.

Third, environmental groups need to look realistically at what can be accomplished in the political arena. The environmental movement must work toward compromising, deal making, and finding common ground rather than absolute solutions. Environmental issues have an impact on every part of our society. Senator John McCain wrote a New York Times op-ed piece entitled, "Nature is Not a Liberal Plot" to emphasize that there is a broad common ground on environmental issues on which Republicans and Democrats can agree. These issues will be dealt with only within the context of the messy U.S. political system. The sooner the environmental groups and the elected officials start to play this game realistically, the better for us all.

James Moore is a policy analyst and an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Portland. This article was originally printed in NRLI News, Winter 1996, Vol. 7, No. 2, a publication of the Natural Resources Law Institute, Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College.

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