Environmental groups to spend $2M to flip Pa. legislature

Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg

In this file photo from Nov. 19, 2019, the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible through the trees in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Several Pennsylvania environmental groups plan to pour millions into closely contested State House and Senate races with the goal of flipping the General Assembly in Democrats’ favor.

Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of PA –– an independent affiliate of the national League of Conservation Voters –– said his group would sink $971,000 into independent expenditures designed to knock out incumbents in 22 legislative races, including 11 in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“In many cases, these are people running against incumbents with terrible environmental voting records,” he said. “These are opponents of clean water and clean air.”

McNeil bills the investment as the largest state electoral campaign by an environmental group in Pennsylvania history. Donations are being channeled into a Super PAC called the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania Victory Fund.

There will be 203 House seats and 25 of 50 Senate seats up for grab this election cycle. Democrats need to win nine additional seats to take control of the House and four more to flip the Senate. The party hasn’t controlled the state House since 2010 and the Senate since 1980.

Super PACs can spend unlimited funds to support political candidates, but cannot directly coordinate with campaigns, and do not have to disclose their donors. Conservation Voters of PA said its funding comes from a mix of member donations and national pro-environment interests. In addition to other past State House races, McNeil’s group had previously spent a quarter-million to help flip control of Chester County’s Board of Commissioners last year and also invested in Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier’s successful primary bid to oust longtime Democratic incumbent Jannie Blackwell.

McNeil said the spending would focus on live phone calls to voters in support of candidates like Gary Spillane, a Democrat and running against State Rep. F. Todd Polinchock in Pennsylvania’s 144th District. The Conservation Voters criticized the Bucks County Republican’s environmental record in an op-ed earlier last month. But the plan also overlaps with a national Democratic Party strategy that aims to capitalize on discontent with President Donald Trump in suburban districts that have historically trended more toward Republicans. But McNeil said his group had polling indicating that environmental issues –– like pipeline construction –– were hot button issues in suburban areas across Pennsylvania.

“We’re finding unprecedented levels of support for open space, funding for clean water and air. COVID has become the dominant issue of the campaign, but it’s made environmental issues and the public health that those issues underlie more important.”

McNeil said his group was partnering with other environmental organizations, like Clean Water Action and PennEnvironment, to ultimately put closer to $2 million into races around the state. Similar independent expenditure groups spent nearly half a million dollars between May and mid-September of this year, according to a Pennsylvania Department of State report, figures that will surely rise as Election Day nears.

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant based in Pennsylvania, questioned how impactful the spending would be when spread across numerous districts. He said while clean water or air is popular with voters, government regulations can be less so.

“I think environmental issues always poll well, but the question is how people rank them in order of importance with other issues,” he said. “Or if they think the only way to improve the environment is with more government regulation and spending.”

Conservative Super PACs have also targeted suburban legislative races, spending big to oust Democrats in the Philly suburbs who’ve been critical of the Mariner East Pipeline.

While analysts give Republicans an edge for retaining control of the General Assembly, Nicholas acknowledged certain suburban districts and possibly the State House were potentially up for grabs. However, he said environmental issues mean different things in different parts of the state.

“Pipeline construction can be a sore point. In places like Chester County, for example, that has corresponded to a rise in fortunes of the Democrats and a decline for Republicans,” he said. “But energy sector jobs are some of the best paying around … In Southwest Pennsylvania especially, being against energy jobs is politically unpopular.”

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