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The results of the U.S. Senate races have been overall disappointing for Democrats who hoped to flip the Republican-led chamber to Democratic control. That disappointment has been felt down-ballot in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, where environmental groups had hoped to flip the Republican-led House and Senate blue. 

Conservation Voters of PA and other environmental groups in the state spent $2 million dollars to elect Democratic candidates who they thought would be more favorable to the environment and score higher on their annual environmental voting scorecard than their Republican opponents. 

Josh McNeal, executive director of Conservation Voters of PA talked with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple about the election results. 

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: We are talking on Thursday afternoon, and all of the votes haven’t been counted, yet, but it does appear that the Pennsylvania General Assembly will remain under Republican control. I know that your group was hoping to flip nine state House seats to Democrats. How are you feeling? 

Josh McNeil: Well, I think like the rest of the country, I mostly am just really excited for this to be over, hopefully today. Obviously, this is not the result we wanted. There are still some races that we could still pick up. There are still votes to be counted, and the most important thing is that every one of them be counted. 

“You don’t make massive change quickly. It takes a little while, and we’re going to keep working at it.”

But no, obviously, we were hoping for a different legislature. There will be an opportunity to get a new one in two years and we’re going to be focused on that. This was a step. We won 12 new pro-environmental legislators in 2018. 

I think we might pick up one or two this year, but you don’t make massive change quickly. It takes a little while, and we’re going to keep working at it.

Holsopple: So when we talked a couple of weeks before the election, you mentioned some state House races you were hopeful about, like Democrat Emily Skopov, who was running for former Speaker Mike Turzai’s seat in Allegheny County against Republican Rob Mercuri. In House District 30, also in Allegheny County, Lissa Geiger Shulman ran against the incumbent representative, Lori Mizgorski, who, according to your scorecard, never voted for legislation that was favorable to the environment. 

It looks like Democrats failed to flip these seats. So what happened?

McNeil: I think there are a couple of different factors at play. Act 77 created the mail-in ballots that people have been voting on [in Pennsylvania]. But the tradeoff of the bill was that it got rid of straight party voting. It used to be you could go in and you would pull a Democratic lever, or a Republican lever, and you’d vote for all of the candidates on the ballot. We had taken into account that that was going to change a little bit how down-ballot races turned out. But I think we underestimated the importance of it, and I think we’re seeing that in a lot of down-ballot races. 

I think a lot of people came in and voted against the President or for the President in many cases, and left it blank after that.

Every appearance is that Joe Biden is going to win Pennsylvania, and that Attorney General Shapiro is going to win Pennsylvania, but we’re also dealing with really bad maps that were drawn by the Republican legislature, and we’re up against that geography. We took a shot at it. We lost, but we’re going to keep fighting.

Holsopple: So in other words, people can pick and choose who they want to vote for in each race. 

McNeil: Yeah, I think a lot of people came in and voted against the President or for the President in many cases, and left it blank after that. We won’t know that for weeks or months until we can sort of really get into the data. But just based on the counts, I think that’s what we’re seeing. 

Holsopple: So are there state House races where a Democrat has won or appears to have won where you think it could make a difference in terms of environmental issues, even though the House won’t be under Democratic control? 

McNeil: Sure. I think if you look in Chester County, there are a couple of incumbents who had very close races two years ago, and just and won again, who have been perfect hundred percent votes, and really ran on that issue.

Holsopple: You mean they voted 100 percent for environmental protections, according to your scorecard.

McNeil: Yes. I think the other thing, too, is no one has “I’m against environmental protection” on their website. Everyone, including candidates who have voted against every environmental bill, has at least a paragraph on their website about how they’re for the environment. 

No one is running against these issues. So I think that the fact that everyone has to at least give lip service to it is really important. I think our job over the next couple of years is to make sure that voters know when their elected officials are not living up to the promises they made when they ran.

Donald Trump and Down-Ballot Races

Holsopple: Donald Trump did well in Pennsylvania this year. It was a thin margin. Did that influence the down-ballot races?

McNeil: I think so. I mean, I hate to admit it, but he has the attention of the world, and the voters, and everyone. That’s the blessing for him, and perhaps the curse for the rest of us, that he gets the attention that he wants. 

You know, I think there were a lot of votes cast against him and there were a lot of votes cast for him, but I think a lot of the oxygen in the room was sucked up by that race. So if you were a challenger in a down-ballot race, just getting any attention from voters, getting your name in front of voters, was a particularly steep climb this year. 

Holsopple: And that’s what you were trying to do with your effort?

McNeil: Exactly, that was, the goal of our program — just to put these excellent candidates in front of people and build up the recognition the voters had for them. I think that’s going to pay off long term, too. A lot of these people are committed to this. I think we’re going to see a lot of them run again, and there will be new districts in two years for them to run in.

Governor Wolf

Holsopple: Right, this legislature is going to be redrawing those lines. One thing we didn’t talk about last time is Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf. He is very supportive of the natural gas industry in the state, and of the tax incentives for Shell’s ethane cracker and gas infrastructure. His administration is being investigated for how permits were issued for construction of the Mariner East pipeline. 

So how much weight does his role have in terms of progress in some of these environmental issues that your group cares about, whether the legislature is red or blue?

McNeil: The governor has a lot of power, and in some cases, we disagree with how he uses that power. In other cases, we’re really excited about it. The governor has also joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has the potential to have a huge impact on Pennsylvania’s contribution to climate pollution. 

There are a lot of things the governor can do on his own, and because of the way the legislature has treated him, has to do on his own. We’d like to see more funding for the DEP, and a freer reign for the DEP to do more to protect Pennsylvanians. 

We’re hoping that the governor will double down again on climate change, which he’s given the appearance that he wants to do. I think in general he’s been an important backstop on some really bad legislation. He’s vetoed a lot of the legislation that would have stripped the Department of Environmental Protection from having the ability to regulate pollution. He’s done a lot. There are some things we disagree on about the future of the economics of the state, but he will remain a really important backstop for environmental protection.