Legislation: Enviromental Influence November Election

Major environmental groups campaigned hard to influence November's congressional elections. Their effort, however, achieved mixed results: Some of their favored candidates won, but some of their targets survived. Meanwhile, industry groups successfully fought several pro-environmental ballot referendums.

Record spending in the millions by the Sierra Club, San Francisco, and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), was aimed at realigning environmental attitudes in the new, 105th Congress by targeting anti-environmental Republican candidates.

One of the campaign's lessons: Accusing vulnerable politicians of anti-environmental extremism can be a potent weapon in negative campaigns.

Ultimately, Republicans retained control of the House and Senate, frustrating the environmentalists who, for the most part, had backed Demo-cratic candidates. Nevertheless, conservation groups were confident that those targets who were re-elected still would be smarting from the political lashing they took for voting "incorrectly" on environmental issues.

"Anti-environmentalists returning to Congress got a warning shot across the bow," said Deb Callahan, LCV's president. "We did not expect to win all of these races, but we expected to make a point. If you vote against the environment, you are in danger of paying for it with your seat in Con-gress."

However, Jonathan Adler, an environmental analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group favoring less government regulation, downplayed the environmental campaign's effectiveness.

"The LCV and the Sierra Club tried to make much of this election a referendum on environmental issues," Adler told a reporter for The N.Y. Times. "But it is hard to say if they were successful. Given all the missteps the Republicans made, the fact that the LCV and the Sierra Club were not more successful suggests that their position has less power and saliency than they suggested."

Whether a single factor is decisive on election day is difficult to measure. Still, the conservation groups insisted, based on election-eve polling, that the incumbent's environmental record was among the most important issues in some races. Thus, adverse publicity could sufficiently exploit the issue to affect the results.

Perhaps the point is simply that media campaigns on environmental issues can influence the outcome - one way or the other. For example, heavy advertising by Florida sugar producers was a major factor in convincing voters to turn thumbs-down on a one-cent-per-pound tax on sugar produced near the Everglades. The tax would have created a fund for en-vironmental restoration in the area where, for decades, runoff from sugar farms has damaged the ecosystem.

Environmentalists also encountered setbacks in a number of Senate races too. Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), for example, was re-elected in a race where his Democratic opponent labeled him a "tool" of polluting industries. Previously, Sen. Smith had sponsored an industry-favored bill to ease toxic waste cleanups.

In Colorado where Republican representative Hank Brown was retiring, the voters elected Republican Con-gressman Wayne Allard, whose voting record the League rated at 7 percent. His Democratic rival, environmental attorney Tom Strickland, received strong support from environmentalists despite his having represented corporate polluters - a fact that Allard was happy to exploit in the campaign.

A closely-contested Oregon election produced a win for Gordon Smith, a Republican who was trying for the second time in two years to win a Senate seat. His Democratic opponent, Tom Bruggere, had attacked him on environmental issues.

Environmental groups did claim victories in two House races where the Sierra Club financed advertising campaigns to help Democrats defeat Republican freshmen. First-term GOP representatives Andrea Sea-strand of California and Dick Chrysler of Michigan lost to Walter Holden Capps and Debbie Stabenow, respectively.

However, Republican freshman from conservative districts were re-elected despite assaults by environmentalists. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho.) won by small percentages.

Not all of the environmentalists' targets were Republicans. Gary A. Con-dit (D-Calif.), a conservative, won handily. He was the sole Democrat on the LCV's "dirty dozen" list - lawma-kers whom the League most strongly opposed.

Overall, the Sierra Club was proud of its accomplishments. The organization claimed that its candidates won in more than two-thirds of the 62 contests where it had focused its attention: eight out of 12 Senate seats and 34 of 50 House seats.

For its part, the LCV said that its candidates won more than half of the contests involving the "dirty dozen."

Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), chairman of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, had predicted a major role for environmental issues in California, Oregon and Washing-ton. "Environmental issues are very important on the West Coast," he said. "The Republicans tried to roll back virtually all the environmental regulations that had been established on a bipartisan basis during the last 20 years."

Callahan would go further. As she sees it, the 1996 elections prove that a green campaign can be influential almost anywhere in the country.