Environmentalists Spend Big to Try to Oust Arizona GOP Senator

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  • Environmentalists Spend Big to Try to Oust Arizona GOP Senator   

June 29, 2020

  • Green group has spent $1.5 million on ads against McSally 

  • Pandemic, social justice could force climate debate 

Arizona’s economy, culture and history are inextricably linked to natural resources, from an abundance of public and tribal lands to a constant dearth of water. 

Its largest city, Phoenix, suffers from some of the nation’s worst air pollution, and climate change is “not a theoretical issue in Arizona anymore,” said Bill Scheel, a longtime Arizona political strategist for progressive candidates and founding partner of marketing and advocacy firm Javelina. 

Environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters are counting on Grand Canyon State voters to recognize those factors in one of this year’s marquee Senate races between GOP Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly—even though there’s been relative silence from both sides on environment issues. 

LCV’s super PAC has spent $1.5 million on ads in Arizona, the most it’s invested in any Senate race. It rolled out its first spot “600,000” on June 23. 

Its super PAC and affiliated entities invested nearly $3.8 million to defeat McSally in 2018, when she narrowly lost an open-seat Senate race to fellow Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D). Soon after, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) chose McSally to replace Jon Kyl, who served temporarily as a replacement for John McCain after his August 2018 death. 

“We defeated her once and we’ll do it again,” said Emily Samsel, national press secretary at LCV. 

LCV isn’t ruling out spending even more money on the McSally-Kelly battle. The Environmental Defense Action Fund is watching the race but hasn’t announced any plans yet to invest resources, spokeswoman Hannah Blatt said. 

Lydia Hall, press secretary for McSally’s campaign, said in an email that the attack ad is “blind partisanship at its worst” and called the senator “a champion for Arizona’s environment.” 

First of Two Ads 

LCV’s 30-second ad, the first of two, runs through July 15 in the Phoenix media market. It derives its headline from the number of people in the state who suffer from asthma, and the approximate amount of money McSally has received in oil and gas contributions since she started running for office in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

The ad’s narrator admonished McSally for her “disgraceful” support of the Trump administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, explicitly linking air pollution to residents’ health problems. 

“Martha McSally. In it for herself. Selling out Arizona,” the ad proclaims. 

LCV said it will continue to hammer McSally over her campaign contributions. Between March 2018 and March 2020, McSally received at least $133,500 from energy companies, including those that promote oil, gas and renewables, as well as from electric and water utilities, and mining groups, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings by Bloomberg Law. 

Hall, the McSally press secretary, cited the senator’s support for the Senate-passed Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422), her work as head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Water and Power Subcommittee, and her leadership shepherding the Colorado River Drought Continency Plan (S. 1057) through Congress in 2019. 

Hall called the DCP “a monumental law for Arizona’s environment.” 

McSally’s efforts on water policy, which Chuck Coughlin, head of HighGround and a longtime GOP strategist, called a “centrist issue,” could be one area she touts during the campaign. 

“I think she has made a concerted effort to talk about water, we’ve seen that,” Coughlin said. “She played a significant role in the state’s adoption of the drought contingency plan guidelines.” 

McSally also has sponsored bipartisan legislation that would streamline the permitting process for renewable energy development on public lands (S. 2666), and another bill (S. 2044) that would to boost resources for federally owned water facilities to improve aging infrastructure. 

Kelly’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story. 

Arizona’s Five C’s 

According to Stuart Goodman, a Republican strategist and principal at Goodman Schwartz Public Affairs in Phoenix, energy and climate change aren’t “triggering anything” among voters surveyed this spring. Goodman cited May polls from  HighGround  and  OH Predictive Insights, two Arizona-based firms that focus on public affairs and market research, respectively. 

Arizonans are most worried about education, jobs, health care and immigration, according to polls. But Goodman said environmental issues could get a much bigger boost after the elections, if Democrats end up controlling Congress, the White House or state legislatures, because they will be driving the policy agenda. 

For some voters the environment will be major concern when they decide on a candidate, said both Goodman and Coughlin. But, they said, it’s particularly those who lean Democratic, and LCV is playing to that constituency with their ads. 

They said those voters are already predisposed toward Kelly, a former astronaut who is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). 

Climate is among the original five C’s integral to Arizona’s economy, along with copper, cattle, cotton and citrus. Those natural resources are “not lost on historic Arizona,” Coughlin said. “Making sure people can find economic opportunity and investment in the state is a really important thing,” especially now, the strategist said. 

So even if those issues aren’t front and center now in the McSally-Kelly race, they are still at play on some level, whether it’s a tie to jobs, or health care, said Laura Dent, executive director of Chispa AZ. 

Chispa is a grassroots program of LCV, now in six states, that aims to elevate Latino voices and political power and move the needle on climate change. 

Arizona is at “the crossroads of climate change,” Dent said. The current health crisis is adding to an already toxic brew for communities of color, who are exposed in greater numbers to poor air quality and water. Those communities also have been suffering disproportionately from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

Dent said the Kelly campaign has reached out to Chispa AZ and done some Latino engagement events in the community. The McSally campaign hasn’t yet reached out, she said. 

—With assistance from Alexandra Yetter. 

To contact the reporter on this story: Kellie Lunney in Washington at klunney@bloombergindustry.com 

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com