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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Conservation Voters: Drastic Election Year Strategy

Air Date: Week of

Jan Nunley speaks with League of Conservation Voters president Deborah Callahan about the group's recent shift in strategy of targeting politicians whose environmental voting records they cannot abide.


NUNLEY: In 1994 conservative activists poured millions of dollars and thousands of hours of trench work into efforts to unseat Democratic legislators, and their efforts paid off. They played a large role in the election of the most conservative Congress in memory. Well, many more moderate and liberal activists feel they got caught flat-footed 2 years ago but say they won't let it happen again. And they're taking a page out of the Conservatives' own book. This year they plan not just to support some candidates but also to actively oppose others. To work to unseat legislators whose records they feel are particularly egregious.

Among the groups taking the lead in this change is the League of Conservation Voters. LCV has decided to go after 12 incumbents, "the Dirty Dozen," they call them, who by the League's reckoning have the worst environmental records and the worst chances of re-election. This marks a turning point for the group, which in the past has limited its campaign efforts to endorsing candidates and sending them checks. I asked the League's president, Deborah Callahan, to explain the change in their strategy.

CALLAHAN: After 1994, after we lost so many good environmentalists from Congress, and we've seen this absolute reactionary Right Wing set of members take over the leadership in the House and in the Senate, we realized that we have to get much more aggressive. And we've got to tell the public the story of what's going on right now in Washington, DC. Fundamentally, we have to build a new Congress. We have to build a pro-environmental Congress. And that requires us not just supporting our friends, because we've lost a lot of them. We've actually got to get out and unelect the anti-environmentalists from Congress.

NUNLEY: How do we know that the environment is a big issue for voters? If it wasn't an issue enough in 1994 to keep them from electing people who as it turned out were pretty much anti-green, how do we know it's going to be an issue for them now?

CALLAHAN: Historically this has not been a top-tier national election issue. This year both Republican and Democratic pollsters are telling us that this is one of the top issues that the public is thinking about and wants to talk about. We've also done some polling that has demonstrated to us that in fact this is an issue that has absolutely skyrocketed beyond anything we've ever seen historically.

NUNLEY: Top 10? Top 5?

CALLAHAN: Top 3. And things can certainly change. In American politics 5 months is an eternity, potentially. But there have been some very specific examples of how the public is responding to the environmental issue. There was a special election in Oregon in January that Sierra Club and LCV spent over $200,000 in. We bought media, we had volunteer operations, we ran radio, we had telephone calls being made on part of this campaign. We turned out 50,000 voters to the polls and Widen won by 17,000 votes. After that campaign, we did an exit poll because we wanted to find out: are voters going to vote environment this year? Was this a persuasive issue for them? Because we really ran our model. And what our exit poll showed in Oregon in the Senate special election was, two thirds of Oregon voters in January said that candidate stands on the environment were more important in that election than any other election they'd ever seen in Oregon. And there are a lot of other numbers coming out of that exit poll that demonstrated to us: when we tell the voters this year the story about good environmentalists and people who don't support these issues that we've really got some power.

NUNLEY: Now you've put together this list of incumbents that you want to defeat, the so-called "Dirty Dozen" list. Now, how have you decided who's going to be on the "Dirty Dozen" list?

CALLAHAN: Well, we actually haven't, yet. It's an ongoing work in progress. We're tracking about 28 races right now, where we see opportunities where there is a member who's got a very, very, you know, abysmal environmental voting record. Where they're also vulnerable to being knocked off. These aren't poster kids. These are people that we really think we can knock off. You look at a wide range of factors. You look at how expensive that district or that state is to run a campaign in; what is the cost of the media market? You look at who's running against that person. We want to elect good environmentalists. You look to see if the environmental issue can actually have an impact in that district. We will unveil the first about third of our Dirty Dozen at the end of June. We'll unveil some more in July, and then this fall, once we finish the primary season, we'll unveil the rest of the Dirty Dozen. So this is an ongoing process; I want to let members of Congress know: we're going to keep watching you all the way through this year.

NUNLEY: This kind of attempt to influence legislators is being looked at right now in the context of campaign finance reform as really something that's part of the problem. Pressure groups, interest groups, continually pushing and pulling on the legislative process. Are you part of the problem by doing this, or are you contributing to the solution?

CALLAHAN: I believe that one of the reasons that the public is so angry at politicians, at the Congress, who are infuriated about our electoral process, is because the voters believe that somebody out there is getting very wealthy, and very powerful, and serving their own interests through the electoral and the political process. We represent a broad public point of view. We are a political action committee as well as a nonprofit and an educational organization, and frankly the League of Conservation Voters will be very happy to stop operating it as a PAC and operate within whatever legal guidelines are in effect. However, at this point in time, that's how the game is played. We're using the system and we're using it appropriately, and once the rules of the road change we'll be happy to change along with them.

NUNLEY: Deborah Callahan is president of the League of Conservation Voters. Deborah, thanks for coming by.

CALLAHAN: I've enjoyed it. Thanks a lot.



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