Michigan Senate race: Can outsider millions make climate change an issue?

Outside groups backed by the Koch brothers on the right and environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer on the left are pumping millions into a race that tests whether climate issues can play well for Democrats in moderate states.

Yfat Yossifor/The Bay City Times/AP
Lori Dole, owner of Castaways, talks about her business with US Sen. Debbie Stabenow and US Rep. Gary Peters, both Michigan Democrats, during a Great Lakes jobs tour Aug. 20, 2014, at Castaways in Bangor Township, Mich.

Green groups are pouring millions into the Michigan Senate race, running TV advertisements about climate change and pollution that attack the Republican and support the Democrat.

But it’s unclear whether the climate messaging has had any effect. In fact, recent polls show that Democratic Rep. Gary Peters's lead is shrinking, with Republican Terri Lynn Land trailing a mere six percentage points. Other polling indicates the race is even tighter.

So why harp on climate change if it’s not necessarily resonating with Michigan voters? It’s all about strategy for green groups. They’re aiming to invest in candidates who will support green issues in office, even if green issues aren’t voters’ top priority.

“They have to have electoral success,” says Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “They can’t just go around and inform the public.”

On Wednesday, the League of Conservation Voters released the latest climate-related television ad of the cycle – a 30-second spot that ties Ms. Land to the industrialist billionaire Koch brothers and accuses her of “ignoring the science” of climate change.

“If I was targeting elections, I would target districts where climate can make a difference – and that may be what’s happening in Michigan,” Mr. Brulle says. “The League of Conservation Voters is targeting places where they think they can win.”

And if it works in Michigan, the state could serve as a case study for how to back so-called “climate hawks,” like Representative Peters, in moderate states like Michigan.

Climate change has become central to the race, in a state that once thrived on an oil-guzzling, emissions-heavy auto industry. The League of Conservation Voters and NextGen Climate, a group backed by environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, have pumped millions into the race already.

In Land’s corner, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has funneled millions into the competitive race, which could determine whether Republicans take back control of the US Senate.

“Terri Lynn Land ignores climate science even though Michigan just experienced massive floods and an algae bloom that threatened drinking water,” says Daniel Weiss, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president for campaigns, in a statement Wednesday.

In response, Land has accused Peters of being mercenary in his support of green issues.

“Congressman Peters is willing to sell his position to the highest bidder, and right now that’s the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer,” Land told Politico, in a written statement.

But Land also has benefited from billionaire-backed advertisements peddling issues that may not matter to voters.

“Long after there was anything to be gained from attacking Peters on Obamacare, they were still attacking him on Obamacare,” Michigan pollster Bernie Porn said of pro-Land advertisements run by Americans for Prosperity.

Voters in Michigan may respond differently to climate messaging based on a variety of factors – ranging from high gas prices to current events like algae blooms in Lake Michigan.

And in the long term, more Democratic candidates are likely to run on climate issues.

“They’ve decided this is a political issue on which they can win,” Brulle says.

But on some environmental issues, Peters may still run counter to popular opinion. According to Mr. Porn, there’s indication that Land has successfully attacked Peters’s opposition to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

“Groups have attacked him on Keystone, and they keep coming back to it,” Porn says. “I’m assuming that resonates with people more than other things they’ve been testing.”

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