Montana Public Radio

Public Lands Tipped Montana Senate Election In Tester's Favor, Green Groups Say

Dec 4, 2018

An environmental SuperPAC says environmental messaging helped swing a handful of tight midterm races last month, including Montana’s hotly-contested U.S. Senate race.

The League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund urges future candidates to remember these results.

“And if they don’t, I think it will be at their peril," says  LCV Victory Fund’s Pete Maysmith.

“Talking about specific and localized environmental impacts that people are actually experiencing proved to be the most effective messaging for us this cycle. That was around the importance of access to public lands in Montana, the impact of fires fueled by climate change in California or focusing on health impacts of pollution in New Jersey," Maysmith says.

Montana’s Senate race, California’s 48th congressional district and New Jersey’s 3rd district were all decided by single-digit margins.

A word cloud from the Global Strategy Group's post-election survey on public lands and conservation issues in Montana's 2018 U.S. Senate race.
Credit Global Strategy Group

Global Strategy Group’s Andrew Baumann says Montana’s incumbent senator, Jon Tester, locked-in his Democratic base early in the campaign, whereas center-right voters waited to make up their minds.

"And Tester really over-performed with late-deciding center-right voters in the final weeks before the election, and that’s how he won. With these voters we definitely see public lands breaking through and having a real impact in why they decided to vote the way they did.”

Global Strategy Group is a Democratic polling firm that surveyed 800 Montana voters in the days following November’s election. Baumann says Montanans who voted against Republican challenger Matt Rosendale mentioned a variety of issues, including his close association with President Donald Trump as reasons for their opposition.

“But you also see breaking through as strong as anything else, public lands; and also the idea that he’s not from Montana, or he's from out of state, which obviously, both the Tester campaign and LCV tied very strongly to his position on public lands.”

University of Montana Political Science professor Rob Saldin examined the report and points out that it can be tricky to pinpoint how any single issue truly resonates with voters.

“When you fill out your ballot you can vote for whoever you want on whatever basis you want, but when you ask people to justify their vote after the fact, it’s just a little different. We know some people don’t tell the truth on these things, or that some people will just grasp for something that just sounds sensible, whether or not it was really the most important factor. But all that said, their basic point that environmental and public lands issues were important to Montana voters this fall certainly seems reasonable and credible,” Saldin says.

Saldin doesn’t think the environment will always be a defining issue in every single race.

“Because in some cases the differences between the candidates are just going to be fairly minor. But when you have clear differences as we did in this year's Senate election, yes these issues can absolutely be important.” 

Joe Bonfiglio is President of EDF Action Fund, the campaign arm of the Environmental Defense Fund. Bonfiglio predicts specific and highly-localized environmental messaging will be an effective technique during the 2020 presidential race.

“The Trump Administration and what they've done is so fundamentally at odds with where voters are that I think you will see candidates talk about the environment, again, in ways that connect with voters in Nevada or on the coasts with offshore drilling. I think that’s the one common thread that we will see.”