Greens spent millions on midterm elections and lost. Or did they?

Environmental groups dropped tens of millions to influence the midterm elections. And while they didn't keep the Senate blue, green groups hope they've made inroads with the GOP, and have elevated the profile of climate change and clean energy in American politics.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado speaks to students during a visit to the University of Colorado in Boulder on Election Day. Sen. Udall came up short against his Republican opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, who road Republicans' country-wide wave of victory in the midterm elections and helped the GOP retake the Senate.

In a political system increasingly dominated by outside spending and billionaire influence, environmentalists sought to fight super PACs with super PACs this election cycle.

Green groups pumped tens of millions of dollars into the midterm elections – from television advertising to field operations – in states with hotly contested races. It was an experiment in high-profile, seven-digit spending from a voting bloc that has long subsisted on grassroots campaigns and small-dollar donations.

Did it work?

Not if the goal was to keep Democrats in the Senate. Republicans now have a convincing majority in the chamber, despite the millions green groups spent backing unlucky Democrats like Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado.

But if the goal is seen more broadly as an effort to get energy and climate on the table, the big-dollar spending might have been an investment that pays dividends later on.

Green groups – the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), League of Conservation Voters, and more – dropped more cash this election than ever before. The League of Conservation Voters alone spent nearly $30 million. That’s in addition to the $57 million billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer put into NextGen Climate, a super PAC that pumps money into races to make climate change an issue.

That money wasn’t enough to keep Democrats in charge of the upper chamber, or to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Florida or Gov. Paul LePage in Maine. On other counts there was mixed success, green groups say. They believe they’ve made inroads with moderates in the GOP, and think climate change is poised to be an issue in the 2016 elections and beyond.

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“Whatever may have driven individual races, the American people want action on climate change,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the NRDC Action Fund, in an election night statement. “They didn’t vote to roll back foundational environmental safeguards for the sake of polluter profits.”

But Iowa voters did pick a candidate – Republican Senator-elect Joni Ernst – who has said she would scrap the entire US Environmental Protection Agency. And given green groups' heavy involvement in the Iowa Senate race, Ernst’s success calls into question just how well environment and climate change resonated with voters.

That doesn’t mean green issues won’t play a bigger role in the future, or didn’t matter at all in this election. As a Republican wave swept key races into the GOP column and turned the Senate red, environmentalists looked to the successes of Senator-elect Gary Peters (D) of Michigan, moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire – pro-environment voices who ran on green platforms.

And groups weren’t just looking to back pro-environment candidates this time around, as environmental organizations are quick to point out. They’re banking on changing elections down the road, too.

“We’re very much taking the long view here,” said Tony Kreindler, senior director for communications at EDF’s political action arm, in an interview with the Monitor last month. “It’s going to take a long time to shift the politics and get politicians at the federal level re-engaged.”

In the meantime, environmentalists have lost their Democratic Senate “firewall.” Under Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, the Senate continually rebuffed the GOP-led House’s attacks on President Obama’s energy and environmental policy. A Republican Senate will be more likely to work with the House on bills to expand oil and gas drilling and approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Some of those Republicans are warming to greens, though. Environmentalists have endorsed and run ads on behalf of moderate Republicans nationwide in hopes of making climate change and environmental issues less partisan.

The biggest GOP candidates to benefit are Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Chris Gibson of New York – moderates with good environmental records. Sen. Collins and Rep. Gibson sailed through relatively easy re-election contests Tuesday, and their green backers hope they’ll continue to be allies in the coming Congress.

Still, green groups’ spending on elections this year is small compared to the amount the energy industry spends.

“The recent surge in spending from environmental groups brings their 2014 spending to the same levels energy companies laid out in the 1990 election cycle,” Philip Bump notes in the Washington Post.

And the energy industry applauded Tuesday’s election results, hoping a GOP Congress will force Obama’s hand on pro-coal, oil, and gas policies in the next two years.

“Yesterday, the American people chose to elect a Senate that can stand up to the President and make him work to find compromise,” said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement Wednesday. “I am optimistic this sea change will … put energy policy making back in the hands of Congress where it belongs.”

Greens’ ramped-up engagement in the midterms is also a harbinger of a broader shift in the way electoral politics operate in the US. It used to be that candidates and parties – the people on the ballot – did most of the fundraising, advertising, and campaigning.

Not so today, as billionaires likes the industrialist Koch brothers on the right and NextGen Climate’s Steyer on the left wield their personal wealth in electoral battles.

“If you look back at the 2006 election, there was close to zero outside spending,” Lawrence Norden, a deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, says in a telephone interview. “There were some non-profits that spent in politics, but … almost all went directly to candidates and parties.”

This has been the most expensive midterms election in history thanks to the growth in outside spending, and beefed-up involvement from environmental organizations and other outside spenders has had an impact.

About $111 million alone went into Sen. Hagan’s race against Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis in North Carolina. That’s more money than any other general election Senate race in history.

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