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A Democrat Ran on Climate Change in a Republican Stronghold—and Won

Sean Casten's win in Illinois's 6th Congressional District is a lesson for the Democratic Party.

Charles Edward Miller/Flickr

If Sean Casten had talked about climate change once during his campaign, that would have been more than most Democrats running for Congress. But Casten didn’t talk about climate change just once, or even merely ten or twenty times, as he sought to flip Illinois 6th Congressional District from red to blue. He made it the center of his entire campaign.

“After years fighting climate change as an entrepreneur, I’m now determined to fight it as the next member of Congress,” reads Casten’s Twitter bio, updated to reflect his victory on Tuesday. A scientist, environmental writer, and the founder of a successful renewable energy business, Casten talked repeatedly about global warming on the campaign trail and regularly called out his opponentsix-term incumbent Republican Representative Peter Roskam—for being weak on the subject.

Casten’s focus on climate was mostly overlooked in the widespread coverage of his five-point upset of Roskam, who once referred to climate change as “junk science.” But it’s an important factor, considering the Democratic Party’s prevailing logic on the subject. Knowing that global warming can be a polarizing issue, most Democrats running in red or purple districts this year strategically avoided talking about it. They feared, according to The New York Times, that “highlighting climate change risks handing conservative voters a motivating issue to turn out against them.”

So why didn’t Casten heed that logic in Illinois’ 6th, given that it’s been in Republican hands for more than 40 years?

I’ve never run for any office before,” Casten told me in a Friday phone interview. “But what I have done is spent the last 20 years doing something about climate change. So I wasn’t going to suddenly turn into a different beast on the day I ran for office.” He said he didn’t receive any warnings from Democratic Party officials about his campaign platform. “I think its a misconception that the party controls messaging,” he said.

Casten’s professional background likely helped his case for voters, as he’s proven that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be economically profitable. The business he founded in 2007, Recycled Energy Development LLC, focuses on improving the efficiency of energy production. “I’ve found that, if I tried to convince people to address climate change for purely environment reasons, that was hard,” he said. “But running on climate change as an economic opportunity is a fantastic can-opener.”

The district’s unique voter makeup also likely contributed to his success. As ThinkProgress noted in an August profile, Illinois’ 6th “covers an area that includes people who work for two different national laboratories, Fermilab and Argonne National Lab.” “It’s a very highly-educated, scientifically minded set of voters,” Casten told ThinkProgress. “They are people who value facts, and are generally pretty centrist—bipartisan—in their world view.”

There was another reason to believe Casten’s message might resonate with voters: Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016. Even so, it was an undoubtedly risky strategy in trying to flip a seat held by Republicans for nearly half a century. Could it be that Democrats’ prevailing logic on global warming—that talking about it is political suicide—is wrong?

Casten isn’t sure, but he hopes so. “The idea of the businesses I’ve ran was that the scale of climate change was too big for one company to solve—but if we made money, maybe other people would follow,” he said. “So if that translates to politics, and the run-out of a six-term climate denier makes Democrats want to run on that in 2020, that’d be pretty awesome.”

And even if polling doesn’t suggest that it’s a winning message, that shouldn’t discourage Democrats from talking boldly about solving climate change, Casten argued. It’s the government’s duty to solve societal problems, even ones that much of the citizenry denies or ignores—perhaps especially those ones. “This isn’t a question of polling well, it’s a question of how do you change public opinion,” Casten said. “That’s what leadership is—not to follow public opinion, but to shape it.”