Greening of the Voter Battle

Democrats hope to tap concern over environment to siphon off GOP votes

After a recent $150-a-plate fund-raising dinner at the Bayside Country Club, movers and shakers in this small city amid the redwoods of California's North Coast file out past Republican Rep. Frank Riggs.

A timber company executive stops and pumps his hand. "We'll keep fighting the good fight," the congressman pledges.

Mr. Riggs's support rests in large part on looking out for the timber industry that dominates this region. He sponsored the timber salvage law that opened up harvests of dying trees in environmentally sensitive national forests, for example.

The environmental movement, in turn, has made the defeat of Riggs and other key GOP lawmakers one of its highest political priorities. These groups and the Democratic Party hope to exploit public concerns over Republican legislation that rolls back environmental regulation and funding. Many see the environment, along with abortion rights and education, is a wedge issue they can use to siphon off the votes of moderate Republicans, particularly women.

There is evidence that the environment has moved well beyond being a fringe issue in American politics. In a national opinion survey conducted earlier this year, Republican pollster Linda DiVall found that respondents to the survey said by more than 2 to 1 that they have more confidence in the Democrats than the Republicans as the party that will protect the environment.

A poll released last month by the National Wildlife Federation found that 54 percent of Americans now say a candidate's stance on the environment will be important in their voting decision. "Unlike other social issues, on which the public may form its attitudes largely in the abstract, the environment hits people where they live," note Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Research/Strategy/Management.

Building on this momentum, the green organizations are openly imitating the tactics used in the 1994 congressional election by conservative interest groups. The National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition, for example, had notable success in splintering the Democratic base, shaving off the conservative Democratic vote to put a Republican majority in Congress.

The League of Conservation Voters plans to spend about $1.5 million for television advertising and other material aimed at "exposing" the record of Riggs and the rest of what it calls the "Dirty Dozen." The Sierra Club has budgeted about $1 million, much of it also on targeted advertising campaigns.

But geographically, the environment has an uneven importance. According to both environmental groups and political strategists, it tends to be a more potent issue along both coasts and in the Great Lakes region. "It's a huge issue in California, particularly along the coasts," says California Republican Party chairman John Herrington.

It also figures high in Utah, as evidenced yesterday. President Clinton - in a move that was cheered by environmentalists but chastised by Utah's Republican congressional delegation - visited Arizona's Grand Canyon to announce he is establishing a 1.7 million-acre national monument in southern Utah. The issue has been highly contentious for several years, pitting environmentalists against developers. The pristine area - lying between Bryce Canyon National Park and Capitol Reef National Park - envelops one of the largest known coal reserves in the nation.

Even though many Republicans in the West have not backed the environmental groups - notably Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called the president's move tantamount to declaring a "war on the West" - others have backed off.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who belatedly recognized the political damage Republicans were suffering on the environmental front, has tried this year to highlight pro-environmental activity by the Congress.

But politicians in the environmental crosshairs try to dismiss their foes for mounting a partisan effort on behalf of the Democratic Party. "They are arms of the Democratic Party, and they're using nonprofit funding to carry on these campaigns,"says California's 10th Congressional District Republican Rep. Bill Baker, who has been targeted for defeat by the Sierra Club. "They hoked up the voting records in order to make Republicans look bad and make their liberal friends look good."

Some environmental activists are also critical of what they see as a "lesser of two evils" fallacy. "This year, the big green groups have become nothing more than a public relations operation of the Democratic National Committee," wrote syndicated columnist Alexander Cockburn recently.

Environmental organizations acknowledge that the majority of their targets are Republican, but say that is the result of the candidates' voting records, not partisan intent. Baker and Riggs, for example, have zero ratings in 1995 from the League, based on their votes on 12 key pieces of environmental legislation that came before the House. Environmental groups are backing other Republicans, they argue, and targeting some Democrats with anti-environmental voting records.

"We're not here to elect a Democratic or Republican Congress or a Democratic or Republican president," says Deb Callahan, president of the League. "We're here to elect a pro-environment Congress and a pro-environment White House."

Although many legislators have poor records, the environmental organizations have decided to focus their resources on a small number of races where their presence may play a crucial role. Baker, for example, is locked in a tight contest with Democrat Ellen Tauscher, a moderate businesswoman who is considered to have a strong shot in the election.

Environmental organizations accuse candidates like Baker and Riggs of engaging in "greenscamming" - making claims about their environmental concerns that do not match their actual votes. "You can't vote to gut the Environmental Protection Agency enforcement budget by 34 percent and then turn around and say I'm for clean air and clean water," says Bruce JHamilton, conservation director for the Sierra Club.

Riggs responds that he takes up "environmental issues that really matter to the people of this district." He has used his position on the powerful Appropriations Committee to get funding for local projects, such as restoration of rivers to protect the disappearing salmon fishing industry.

"As far as appropriations go, I'd say he's been very effective," says Nat Bingham, habitat director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations. But when it comes to broader issues like protection of large areas of forest habitat for fish and other wildlife, "he's been a good friend of the timber industry in terms of weakening the Endangered Species Act," he adds.

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