After the 2016 election, Teresa Hasbrook decided to channel her frustration with the direction of the country and get active. The Rush City Democrat helped start a group for women who share her progressive views. Members spent the 2018 midterms writing thousands of postcards and knocking on doors for Democrats in Minnesota’s Republican-leaning Chisago County. Earlier this year, the women gathered at a local library to decide their goals for 2020 and beyond. Reaching a consensus was easy: Everyone saw combating climate change as a top concern.
“We knew we had an ethical, moral responsibility to our children,” said Hasbrook, a 67-year-old retiree. “We need to act fast and we need to take this stuff seriously. We’ll be all over this like a rash.”
Perennial campaign issues like the economy, health care and immigration have long driven voters to the polls. But, in the face of growing international concern about the planet’s future, climate change and the environment are emerging as key concerns among voters such as Hasbrook.
The share of Americans who feel the same way — and rank the environment as a top issue — has grown in recent years.
“It’s a ‘from-the-gut’ issue,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “It affects everything about your life. It’s not just taxes. The environment is the future of the world.”
But support for action to address climate change is divided along party and generational lines, with the surge of interest concentrated among Democrats and young voters. Eighty percent of caucusgoers surveyed in a recent Iowa Poll conducted by the Des Moines Register said they want a candidate who talks “a lot” about climate. Youth activists in St. Paul and across the country took part in a mass day of protest to demand action from lawmakers. Several leaders of that movement, including Minnesota teens Maddy Fernands and Isra Hirsi, recently launched a new campaign calling on Democrats to hold a forum on environmental issues ahead of the 2020 election.
Some high-profile Republicans in Minnesota have acknowledged a need to address climate change in recent years, while others reject the view of most leading scientists that humans contribute to the trend. Generally, GOP lawmakers argue that Democrat-backed interventions are too costly and unrealistic.
Given the public opinion trends, many Democratic White House hopefuls are making climate a central part of their campaigns. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s stump speech includes a pledge to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord on her first day in office. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee bases his entire bid on the issue. Other Democratic contenders, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have endorsed the Green New Deal, a sweeping economic and environmental proposal backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to drastically reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years.
The issue is emerging as a flash point on the state level, too. In March, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz rolled out a proposal mandating that Minnesota get 100% of its energy from renewable sources such as wind or solar by 2050. Democrats in the state House are pushing their own version of the Green New Deal. Youth activists backing the plan have flooded the Capitol for rallies and news conferences in recent weeks. Some also vow to ramp up their efforts by staging town halls in suburban swing districts held by Republicans and pushing peers to vote next year.
“You can’t be voting for someone who doesn’t believe in scientific fact or want to save your future,” said Sophia Faacks, an 18-year-old high school senior and organizer with MN Can’t Wait. “That just doesn’t make sense.”
Mike Kennedy, political director for the Senate DFL caucus, said he expects climate to be one of the “defining issues of the 2020 election,” especially in suburban districts the party hopes to flip to win majority control in the upper chamber.
“I think it’s going to play very well in the districts that we are looking to pick up in 2020,” he said.
But Republicans see potential pitfalls for Democrats as well. Although the Green New Deal is a nonbinding resolution, it has become fodder for attacks from Republicans who say it’s too expensive and far-reaching. President Donald Trump has blasted the idea, saying Democrats want to “completely take over American energy and completely destroy America’s economy.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., brought the proposal to the U.S. Senate floor in March, hoping to force Democratic presidential candidates to cast votes for the plan. Republicans in Minnesota will follow a similar political playbook this week, offering an amendment to a House budget bill that includes a state Green New Deal.
Longtime GOP strategist Gina Countryman said that while the goals of clean water and improved environmental standards represent “common ground,” the economic costs could backfire on Democrats. Republicans in swing districts where climate becomes an issue, she said, will emphasize “the costs associated with proposals Democrats are offering.”
“When you start looking at the policy goals by Democrats that are heavily mandate-driven, that deny the energy economy we have today, that have massive implications for family budgets, that’s when that rubber starts hitting the road,” said Countryman, executive director of Minnesota Action Network. “You’re going to see a lot of middle class, working class individuals pull back and say, ‘Hey, I can’t afford what you want to do.’ ”
Hasbrook and her activist friends are used to hearing such arguments in the conservative communities where they live. But they aren’t deterred. Last week, Hasbrook and her friend Diane Bondeson drove 70 miles to a southwestern suburb in hopes of connecting with other climate-focused voters to plan for the future. Back home, they’re meeting to hone their message for voters and planning their own local climate summit to coincide with a major United Nations event this fall. Time, they said, is of the essence.
Time will also tell in the next election.
“We’re almost running out of time,” Hasbrook said. “If we can do something in the next 10 years, we can turn it around. We’re at a crossroads.”