Bang for Their Buck? Green Groups Want Results After Spending Big in '13 Elections

This year’s off-year elections, which featured mostly state and local races, may not have piqued the interest of many Americans. For environmental groups, however, the campaign season was a major test of their spending and organizing power as they prepare for congressional elections in 2014.

Across the country, environmental advocates poured millions of dollars into local races to influence issues such as coal exports, natural gas fracking, grid municipalization, and renewable energy policy.

In most cases, they won.

In Boulder, Colo., activists raised $300,000 in crowdfunding—including $65,000 from the Sierra Club—to support a ballot measure that would allow the city to buy back the local grid from the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy. With control of its own grid, Boulder can follow through on a local initiative to get 100 percent renewable energy. Although activists were outspent 2–1 by an opposition campaign supported by Xcel, the ballot measure passed with 64 percent of the vote.

Washington state featured one of the most important—but largely unknown—races for environmental groups. In an unprecedented spending campaign, the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund raised more than $670,000 to funnel into a county council election to support officials perceived as opposed to a $600 million coal export terminal in the region. Environmental groups outspent the coal industry 4–1, helping elect council members sympathetic to their campaign to stop coal exports.

But the big-ticket race was for the governorship in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe squeezed out a win against Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli is known as a vociferous denier of human-caused climate change, a stance that made him a direct target for environmentalists.

Tom Steyer, a California billionaire trying to use his wealth to make climate change a campaign issue, dumped $8 million into the Virginia gubernatorial race in support of McAuliffe. The League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and NextGen also put more than $2 million into the race, helping support canvassing efforts to defeat Cuccinelli. Those donors brought in more money than any other contributor aside from the Democratic Governors Association.

The spending was crucial. It helped seal a win for McAuliffe, even after he came out in favor of EPA regulations on coal power plants—a controversial position in a state where coal has historically played an important economic role.

"Terry McAuliffe’s victory is a sign of just how quickly the politics of climate change have shifted in Virginia," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a statement after the polls closed on election night.

But some warn that a win in elections does not mean a win on the issues.

“We have to ask ourselves what we actually get for all of this,” said Jigar Shah, a clean-energy investor and founder of solar developer SunEdison. “When we look at Virginia, are we actually going to get what we paid for?”

Shah pointed to Washington state, where environmentalists spent nearly $750,000 in 2012 to elect climate champion Jay Inslee as governor. But since taking office, Inslee has not come out as forcefully against coal exports as hoped, and groups are evaluating how they can step up the pressure.

The same thing happened in Virginia, where environmentalists spent big to put Democrat Mark Warner into the governor’s office in fall 2001, only to see the state continually fail to develop clean energy policies. The state is ranked among the nation’s worst in renewable energy development, even as other conservative Southern states, such as North Carolina and Georgia, have expanded their suite of policies in support of the industry.

“Is that what we expect when we pour millions into these races?” asked Shah. “If Terry McAuliffe delivers, then our millions were well spent. But if he doesn’t deliver, and all he does is prevent Cuccinelli from becoming governor, then that’s not a win in my opinion.”

The 2012 presidential election season marked a turning point for environmental campaigning. Although they were handily outspent by pro–fossil fuel groups last year, organizations such as the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation pulled in tens of millions of dollars to influence key races. And this fall’s elections, where these groups actually outspent fossil fuel interests in some cases, were more proof that environmentalists are starting to play the “big money” game.

How they execute on these election successes remains to be seen.

“This victory in Virginia is round one,” said Sierra Club President Michael Brune, reacting to the election results in a statement. “Over the next twelve months and beyond, the Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters will build on this momentum and fight to elect clean energy champions and hold climate deniers accountable across the country.”

While kicking climate deniers out of office is a start, it doesn’t mean that proactive energy and environmental policies will be put in place. Years from now, the 2012 and 2013 election seasons will not be judged on who won the race but on how those wins were turned into effective policy making in support of the environment.

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Original article from TakePart