The 2020 Election Shows Climate Can Be a Winning Issue for Democrats

In the aftermath of a challenging election that saw Democrats win the presidency but lose seats in Congress, party centrists have been excoriating progressives for giving the GOP ammunition for attack ads. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA agent who serves from Virginia and narrowly avoided defeat, lashed out at leftist colleagues on a conference call for embracing terms like “defund the police” and “socialism,” insisting, “We lost good members because of that.” South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, an influential member of House leadership, added the term “socialized medicine” to the list. He warned that if Medicare for All defines the Senate runoff contests in Georgia, which will determine control of that chamber, “we’re not going to win.”

But one slogan was pointedly absent from this recrimination-fest: The Green New Deal. This marks a quick transformation of the Green New Deal from left-wing fantasy to the mainstream of Democratic policy. The 2020 election saw the party’s bold embrace of multi-trillion-dollar proposals to arrest greenhouse gas emissions and create millions of clean-energy jobs. Far from holding back the candidates who pushed for this necessary ambition on the climate, the issue may even have helped them win — from the House to the White House.

The story in the House is striking. Of 93 House co-sponsors of the Green New Deal who ran for re-election, only one is on track to lose office. This cohort includes, according to an analysis by Earther, four Democrats in truly toss-up districts, all of whom are on track to reclaim their seats, including Rep. Mike Levin, whose centrist Southern California district stretches from Orange County to San Diego; Rep. Jahana Hayes, who serves inland Western Connecticut; Rep. Peter DeFazio of central Oregon; and Tom Suozzi, who serves from western Long Island in New York. The one Green New Deal co-sponsor who was defeated, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, represents a district in South Florida where a wave of Cuban support for Trump, unrelated to the environment, ruined Joe Biden’s chances in the state. Her opponent? Cuban former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez.

Despite some late controversy over the fate of fracking in swing states like Pennsylvania under a Democratic administration, President-Elect Joe Biden won the upper Midwest “Blue wall’ states, and the White House, in convincing fashion even while championing the most progressive climate plan of any Democratic nominee in history. Biden may have eschewed calling his climate plan a Green New Deal, but he embraced the policy core pushed by activists. Throughout the campaign, Biden spoke of the economic and employment benefits of shifting to a sustainable energy economy, and climate action is central to his “Build Back Better” recovery agenda. Pledging more than $2 trillion to the effort, Biden vows to achieve “a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050,” starting by rejoining the Paris climate accord on day one. 

There’s even some evidence that climate-minded voters helped put Biden over the top. A project by the Environmental Voter Project targeted non-voting environmentalists in swing states and succeeded in getting 600,000 to cast their ballots early — “a truly astounding number when you consider that these are almost all first-time voters,” Nathaniel Stinnett, EVP’s president, told the climate newsletter Heated. Figures provided to Heated reveal that EVP turned out nearly 69,000 new environmental voters in Georgia, 55,000 in Pennsylvania, 57,000 in Arizona, and 21,000 in Nevada. Each of those totals exceed Biden’s current margins in the decisive swing states.

In one of his post-election speeches, Biden spoke of the voters giving him a “mandate” to act on climate change. The youth activists at the Sunrise Movement, one of the top organizations mobilizing behind the Green New Deal and pushing it to the center of the nation’s policy agenda, have a message for old-line centrists who are not adapted to the new climate reality: “It’s our party now. (The Dems can cry if they want to.)”

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