Andrew Rice is an unlikely candidate to represent Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate. A 35-year-old Democrat elected to the state senate in 2006, he favors abortion rights and civil unions, despite running in one of the most socially conservative states in the country. He is up against two-and-a-third-term Republican incumbent James Inhofe, in a state with a 44-year history of voting for Republican presidents, and where no Democratic opponent has climbed above 41 percent since 1990. Inhofe’s campaign has already out-raised Rice by more than two to one.
So, why does a recent poll show that, upon hearing of Rice and his campaign platform, Oklahomans favor him over Inhofe by 43-41 percent? Rice is one of a number of Democratic candidates who are using the environment as a wedge issue, making gains in staunchly Republican districts by capitalizing on the growing practical and moral concerns about climate changes in rural communities across the country. Green issues are shaping up to be a key ingredient in the Democrats’ strategy to turn disaffection with President George W. Bush’s GOP into expansive down-ticket victories this November.
Rice has put environmental issues at the heart of his campaign. On the trail, he emphasizes his efforts in the Oklahoma legislature to convert the state’s vehicle fleet to clean-burning fuel and to require public schools to reduce their energy consumption. Rice is hoping his larger agenda of alternative fuel initiatives, which include better harnessing the state’s vast natural gas resources, will appeal to a wide range of voters. “There is a segment of Oklahoma’s population that is willing to swing to the other side for the first time in 20 years,” Rice says.
Rice could not have found a better foe in Inhofe, who is most famous for blocking environmental reforms and for saying that “global warming is the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.” While serving on the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe distributed a list of “over 400 prominent scientists”questioning “the so-called ‘consensus’ on man-made global warming.” (Many of the experts turned out to be television weathermen, economists, or people associated with fossil fuel industries.)
While there are other reasons for Inhofe's drop in popularity--particularly his mishandling of the state’s devastating ice storm last year--environmental issues have surprisingly risen to the top of many Oklahoma voters’ agendas. According to a TVPoll survey taken in February, 86 percent of likely Oklahoma voters believe that the state and federal government must take a strong hand in tackling environmental issues--and so they’re taking a second look at the Republican Party’s hard-line stance on environmental issues. In the same poll, almost two-thirds of likely voters disagreed with Inhofe’s position on climate change, and a higher percentage believed that the Democratic Party was better positioned to handle environmental issues than the GOP.
Practical concerns about the environment are particularly salient in states like Oklahoma, where 17.1 percent of the population is involved in the agriculture industry. Environmentally focused politicians “are striking a responsive chord in the agricultural community, where the unusually extreme weather patterns are eroding farm incomes,” says David Fleischaker, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Energy. “Particularly in the western part of the state, which is predominantly hard-core Republican.”
While stumping, Rice meets Oklahomans who have become card-carrying members of both the NRA and the Sierra Club--the natural landscape, of course, is of particular concern for Oklahoma's 251,000 hunters. A recent report delivered to Congress last month by eight of the nation's leading hunting and fishing organizations illustrated the seriousness with which this crucial rural constituency views climate change. “These people are out in the natural environment and they are seeing a lot of changes in the ecosystem, and they’re concerned,” Rice says. “[Global warming] is not the ‘tree hugger’ issue that it was seen as 10 to 15 years ago.”
An increasing environmentalism within the evangelical movement is also helping Democrats like Rice win in conservative states that have large religious communities. In 2000, self-described evangelicals represented 41.4 percent of Oklahoma’s total population, and according to another TVPoll survey, over 63 percent of avid churchgoers in Oklahoma believe that humans are affecting climate change (in contrast to Inhofe’s opinion) and over 62 percent think the government should take steps toward energy independence. Rice has won support from social conservatives like Bob Waldrop, president of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. Waldrop, a devout Catholic opposed to abortion, told me, “I will vote for Andrew [Rice] because I think that his positions are more in sync with what I believe. If [Inhofe] were really pro-life, he would not be opposed to things that stop greenhouse gases.”
To be sure, Midwestern voters aren’t all fleeing the Republican Party. Issue like abortion and same-sex marriages--not to mention national security and the war in Iraq--remain a higher priority for conservative voters than environmentalism. In February, when Oklahomans were polled about their priorities in the upcoming presidential race, 31 percent said their top concern was the economy; 24 percent said it was the war in Iraq.
Still, mounting concern over the environment has become a significant factor in pushing previously unfriendly districts and states into play for Democrats. The longest-serving Republican senator in Montana’s history, Conrad Burns, lost his seat in 2006 to Democrat Jon Tester, an organic farmer whose campaign focused on plans to shift his state’s energy economy down a newer, greener path. Fourteen-year California GOP representative Richard Pombo, a loud proponent of drilling in vulnerable natural land, was beaten in 2006 by Jerry McNerney, a Democratic wind engineer who ran on a platform of clean energy and was backed by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife. Similar dynamics have helped propel Democrats to victory in states including Missouri, Ohio, and Colorado. After the Democratic sweep in ’06, president of the League of Conservation Voters, Gene Karpinski, declared, "This is the first election I can remember in U.S. history that has put such a specific focus on a top-priority environmental issue."
“Climate change is not an issue that breaks down along the old ideological lines of the past,” says Matthew Miller, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has already assisted the Rice campaign with strategy and polling, and will be hosting a joint fund-raising event with Rice this month in Oklahoma. “There are very few candidates on the Democratic side who don’t have an energy agenda. The public now expects to hear about it.” Meanwhile, Inhofe's message about the environment remains mired in an outdated conservative agenda. "I am convinced that future climate historians will look back at 2007 as the year the global warming fears began crumbling," he said recently from the Senate floor. By refusing to recognize the consensus about the human impact on the environment, it’s more likely that, come November, the only thing crumbling will be Republican numbers in Congress.
Marisa Mazria-Katz is a writer based in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Forbes.