THE BLOG
08/26/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

Can the Environment Save the Republican Party?

The Republican Party is primed for success in 2014. In addition to benefiting from redistricting wizardry, the party has history on its side: off-year elections give opposition parties the clear lead, especially in the second term of a lame duck president.

Yet the GOP has failed to turn these advantages into real gains. It may be winning battles, but it is losing the war because it keeps eroding its voter appeal.

It has turned off young voters with leaders who routinely belittle the severity of climate change, like when Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) told a town hall meeting that "global warming is a total fraud."

It has alienated women with candidates like Colorado's Ken Buck who said people should vote for him "because I do not wear high heels." It has angered Latino voters with lawmakers like Representative Steve King (R-IA) who said that for every Latino valedictorian, there are 100 more hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.

And it has even turned off one of the most reliable voting blocs in the country: senior citizens. In 2011, 43 percent of seniors said they viewed Republicans in a favorable light, but now only 28 percent do, according to a poll by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. Maybe voting 40 times to undo Obamacare had something to do with the decline.

Being the Party of No may get the extremist blood pumping and help win individual primaries, but it doesn't offer much in the form of leadership or vision for the future.

As an environmental advocate fighting for climate action, I suppose I should welcome the listlessness of a group that promotes climate paralysis. But as an American citizen, I know our democracy functions best when it has two vibrant parties jostling with one another and staking out common ground.

To become vibrant once again, the GOP has to stop featuring the craziest voices in its choir and start singing a tune that appeals to more voters. The environment is a good place to start.

This might sound shocking in the age of climate denial, but the truth is that clean air and clean water don't observe party lines. They benefit all Americans, and poll after poll shows American voters value them. A Pew poll released earlier this year showed 79 percent of people surveyed were worried about the pollution in their drinking water. The same poll found 70 percent of people worried about air pollution.

Wise Republicans have recognized this through the years, from President Teddy Roosevelt preserving our shared natural heritage to President George H.W. Bush helping to strengthen the Clean Air Act in 1990 and launch the cap and trade program to reduce acid rain.

Since the rise of the Tea Party, however, environmental protections are often cast as government overreach instead of what they really are: the safeguards that stand between your family and the polluter down the street. No matter what your ideological persuasion is, chances are you don't want your children or parents breathing more smog or swimming in sewage.

This is the fundamental appeal of environmental issues. They are local, and if all politics are local, then calling on a nearby industrial plant to clean up its waste and making sure the state's beaches are clean enough to keep the tourist dollars coming will generate political momentum.

It might also bring back some women voters, who care so deeply about the health of our families, and maybe even some Latino voters who routinely rank environmental safeguards as a priority. These are good groups to get on your side, because they will pound the pavement for you: the two largest groups of volunteers in Obama's 2012 reelection army were women and Latinos.

The environment can be a bridge builder for the GOP, but only if it makes room for moderate leaders who have championed environmental safeguards in the past -- leaders like Sherry Boehlert and Mike Castle and even Fred Upton before he began pandering to the Tea Party in 2010. If the GOP wants to shore up its broad-based appeal instead of living off the rage of a dwindling group, it will listen to its own clean water and clean air voices once again.