(CN) – In the upcoming election, Californians must confront a panoply of issues affecting the state: the homelessness epidemic and affordable housing, immigration, transportation and a tempestuous relationship with the Trump administration. But where does the environment fit into the glut of issues facing the state and its electorate?
According to various experts, other issues may predominate but the environment – particularly air quality, water quality, climate change and the spate of devastating wildfires – will continue to play out in elections across the Golden State.
“Historically, poll my constituents and their top two issues were environment and education,” said Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, at a recent dedication of a public beach. “Today, they put housing and transportation above those, but care for the environment and improving our education system are the foundation of values and passion of my constituents.”
Californians remain willing to vote to spend money on environmental projects as well, as seen by the recent passage of Proposition 68 in June. The $4 billion bond measure will fund state and local parks, environmental restoration and protection projects, water infrastructure and flood control.
“There’s something about the DNA of the average Californian that makes them care about the environment,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
Maybe it’s California’s iconic geography, the diversity and beauty stretching from alpine vistas to parched desert to productive farmland to cool, misty coastland. Or its Mediterranean climate and unpredictable rainfall.
“When you look at California, you have all these different geographic areas, and there are a lot of different policy ideas that come out of these regions,” said Matt Fleming, a spokesman for the California Republican Party.
While the GOP may have a reputation of being pro-business and anti-environment, Fleming says all candidates in California want clean air, clean drinking water, trails to hike and beaches for people to go to.
But the parties differ on how to best secure those desires.
Katie Hill, running for Congress as a Democrat in California’s 25th District – the traditionally conservative LA suburb of Simi Valley – makes clear in her campaign literature and on Twitter that she intends to use the environment as a wedge issue.
“Sensible environmental policy,” she wrote in one tweet in which she shared a recent news story linking California’s ongoing wildfire crisis with climate change.
Incumbent Steve Knight, meanwhile, must fend off his opposition’s claims that he’s overly friendly with the oil and gas industry at the expense of a warming planet. The Sierra Club has taken out several ads on the Los Angeles Times website attacking the two-term congressman.
The organization points to Knight’s vote to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s implementation of the methane rule, which would significantly reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Knight has also voted against climate change legislation and publicly states he is against any type of carbon tax, the group says.
“Steve Knight has repeatedly voted to put polluter interests above the people he represents by undermining clean air and climate action policies that would benefit everyone,” said Matthew Gravatt, Sierra Club’s associate legislative director. “In fact, it seems like he cares more about helping carbon, methane and air pollution prosper than our own kids.”
The Sierra Club has taken out similar attack ads against four other Republican congressional incumbents, hoping that attacking the legislators over environmental issues will help move the needle and make California the source of the so-called Blue Wave aiming to return the House to Democrats.
U.S. Reps. Jeff Denham from the state’s Central Valley, Mark Amodei of Nevada, Tom MacArthur of New Jersey and Bruce Poliquin of Maine have also been targets of attack ads focused almost exclusively on their voting records on climate change.
In California, a political action group called Red to Blue California is trying to flip all nine Republican-held House seats up for election this coming November. The group took out an attack ad against Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district encompasses vast swaths of the Sierra Nevada and its forests.
The group claims McClintock’s record on wildfires is spotty at best, having voted against funding the firefighting arm of the U.S. Forest Service and opposing directing money toward firefighting efforts.
“Career politician Tom McClintock’s position on fire prevention is so bad he might as well be lighting the fires himself,” the group said in a mailer delivered to residents in McClintock’s district.
McClintock hit back, saying the votes were in omnibus bills, and defended his record. But while his seat is likely safe, his detractors view the attack as a moral victory.
But moral victories may not be enough. All told, the economy is in decent shape – a point that tends to favor the party that holds power. And as University of California, Santa Cruz professor Daniel Press points out, the environment doesn’t motivate voters the way environmentalists and some politicians would like, even in California.
Press has published several studies delving into voting trends in California specifically, in an effort to divine how Californians vote on environmental matters.
“I still don’t see environment playing a big role in statewide races,” he said. “Environment still ranks very low in state and national voter surveys of electoral priorities, alas.”
But Phillips of the Sierra Club said recent elections have suggested otherwise. She points to the election of Eloise Reyes, a Democrat representing California’s 47th Assembly District – a traditionally conservative part of Southern California known as the Inland Empire.
Reyes ran against fellow Democrat Cheryl Brown in November 2016 and, according to Phillips, their competing records on environment made the difference in the race.
“Eloise presented herself in stark contrast to the previous incumbent, who voted for several bills that were in line with the desires of the oil and gas industry,” Phillips said. “And it worked.”
By positioning herself as a Democrat who would fight the oil and gas industry rather than take their money and run interference for them in the Legislature, Reyes managed to win, Phillips said.
“They called her Chevron Cheryl,” Phillips said of Reyes’ opponent. “It worked.”
Phillips said that election sent a message not only to Democrats eager for campaign contributions from resource extraction industries, but to all candidates that California voters regardless of party want a clean environment and practical solutions for California’s environmental problems – rampant wildfires, a diminishing water supply, susceptibility to drought and the specter of climate change.
A recent poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California bolsters Phillips’ case.
The institute found a majority of Californians say the environment is a critical factor in how they will vote in the gubernatorial election, featuring former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and San Diego-based businessman John Cox.
Newsom has hewn to progressive environmental messages, while Cox limits his comments on the environment to regulations detrimentally impacting the small businesses and other aspects of the economy.
“The inequality gap in this country is all about the crushing regulations, not least of which in California is CEQA,” or the California Environmental Quality Act, Cox said at the California Economic Summit in San Diego. The law “has basically crushed the ability of people to start their own business,” he said.
In all, 56 percent of respondents said the candidates’ position on environmental matters will be a determining factor in how they cast their votes – the highest such share since the institute began tracking public opinion on the matter in 2006.
“Many Californians are concerned about the personal impact of global warming in the wake of a prolonged drought and in the face of fears that extreme weather may result in more severe wildfires,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the institute.
And because wildfires are among the first tangible results of a warming planet happening in real time, the role the environment plays in California elections could shift. The same poll found a majority (56 percent) say global warming poses a threat to the economy and way of life, while 69 percent believe the effects of global warming have already begun.
Two-thirds of likely voters say extreme weather related to climate change will result in larger more severe wildfires.
This new focus on environmental issues prompted Mike Madrid, a seasoned California political strategist, to call for the Republican Party to return to its roots as the party of Teddy Roosevelt, the creators of both the National Park System and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Careful stewardship of the environment has long been a central tenet of California conservatism,” he said before criticizing the Trump administration’s unpopular polluter-friendly policies including offshore drilling.
But despite an upswell in environmental focus, for many Californians climate change and the environment are just part of a cavalcade of critical issues facing residents, businesses and policymakers in the Golden State.
“The environment, at least in the Bay Area, has not polled as highly as it did in the past,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.
Congestion, immigration, affordable housing, homeless problems all consume much of the oxygen in the Bay Area’s public debate these days. But Hill said the environment remains important and could become even more so as the dire effects of climate change continue.
“It’s one of those things that once we start losing some of the benefits – whether it be air quality or water quality – it will rise to the top of the priority list again pretty quick,” he said.