11/07/2012 09:49 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Election 2012: Realignment of Green Politics?

Voters are sending many conservation leaders -- new faces and veterans -- to Washington, after largely rejecting candidates who told voters that we have gone too far in protecting our environment. When the new Congress convenes in January, however, power will once again be divided between a Republican House and a Democratic President and Senate. So what does it mean for the environment and green politics?

The full story of the 2012 election for conservation has yet to be written. These elections have opened a window of opportunity to realign the politics of the environment. As GOP leaders look for ways to broaden their appeal, they should start by returning to the party's Teddy Roosevelt conservation roots and offering a vision of Republican environmental leadership that connects with the strong environmental values of voters.

Never before has the hill been so steep toward this goal. This election featured GOP candidates who took a sharp departure from the Republican Party's strong history of leading fights for stewardship of America's lands, wildlife, clean air and clean water. During his convention speech, Governor Romney even mocked President Obama on climate change. Many of these candidates are heading home rather than to Washington.

Republican conservationists haven't disappeared, but they have been marginalized and are not sufficiently represented within the party structure. Outside Washington, conservation values among many Republicans are strong:

  • According to a landmark 2011 study of American public opinions by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 54 percent of Republicans agree that "this country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment."
  • A more recent survey by National Wildlife Federation found that Republican hunters and anglers strongly support public lands and clean water protections, and 53 percent of GOP sportsmen believe we have a "moral responsibility" to deal with global warming.

Who today is speaking to conservation Republicans who are such a large share of the Republican ranks? And how does the GOP plan to grow in the future? As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said before the polls closed on Election Day:

If we lose this election there is only one explanation -- demographics.

Sen. Graham has it right. Look at the continued flight from the GOP of young voters, who rate the environment, climate change and clean energy near the top of their concerns. Obama carried voters age 18-29 by 60 percent -- a 5 million vote advantage.

As Latino voters' share of the vote continues to grow, it would be a mistake to view this diverse constituency as single-issue voters and overlook their strong environmental views. According to a 2012 survey by National Council of La Raza and Sierra Club, 92 percent of Hispanic voters believe we have a responsibility to 'take care of God's creations on this earth -- the wilderness and forests, the oceans, lakes and rivers."

And don't forget the 9-point gender gap (with 55 percent of women voting for President Obama). Surveys consistently demonstrate that women have strong concerns over clean air, clean water and leaving a healthy environment for future generations.

None of this is new. The GOP's departure from environmental stewardship has been a risky roll of the political dice. It may be hard for politicians in Washington from either party to resist the temptation of the deep pockets of polluting industries. However, if this election demonstrated anything to congressional candidates, it is that money isn't everything. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $20 million to defeat seven pro-conservation senators, but has nothing to show for it as all seven of those candidates are likely heading to the Senate.

In contrast, the Democratic and Republican candidates endorsed by conservation action groups such as the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund persevered in their competitive races -- candidates such as newly elected Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Angus King (I-ME) and returning Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA). These groups can't match the financial resources of corporations, but conservation issues resonate with voters, and Americans are suspicious of candidates backed heavily by corporate polluters.

The election results should be a wake-up call for any politician who doesn't have a responsible plan for conservation, particularly on the heels of Superstorm Sandy. Along with the extreme droughts and wildfires of the past summer, Sandy has not only increased the urgency of tackling climate change, but also thrust the environment back into the spotlight.