By Kent Minault, HBG Political Chair
Our HBG Political Team jumped into the recent election to support four endorsed candidates for state office: incumbents Gloria Johnson and Sam McKenzie, and challengers Amanda Collins and Greg Kaplan. Sam and Gloria have both been strong allies in Nashville, and we were relieved to see them win back their seats with comfortable margins. The Republican-led legislature had tried to sideline Gloria by merging her district with Sam’s, forcing them to run against each other. Gloria dodged this ploy by moving to a home a mile away so she could run in the newly formed District 90, containing a large rural and more conservative constituency. Nonetheless, she won the seat by the biggest margin of all her four wins to date, seriously embarrassing the Republicans’ redistricting gambit. Sam also won his district by a powerful 71%, though only 30% of the voters showed up.
Amanda and Greg both lost in districts with large rural and conservative areas. District 14 had the highest voter turnout of any district in the state with 46% of voters submitting a ballot, marking a trend where majority Republican districts had the highest participation. Greg’s race in District 18 had the second-highest voter turnout with 43%, but his campaign garnered an extra dollop of publicity from a highly antisemitic mailer put out by the County Republicans and disavowed by his opponent, Elaine Davis. Even though district 18 had been redrawn by Republicans and extended into South Knoxville to make it more conservative, the margin of conservative victory was the same as in the old district 18 in 2020, clearly marking a Republican underperformance. Greg’s energetic style and vigorous opposition to the recent “divisive concepts” legislation won him a 61% majority in the Sequoyah Hills area, beating Joe Biden’s percentage there in 2020 by one point.
Sierra Club members worked hard for our candidates, putting out endorsement statements and calls to action on social media and other platforms. Chapter Chair Jerry Thornton was out canvassing, as was the Political Team. Our new team member, Dana Moran, created a handsome setting for our endorsement statements that hit social media the Monday before election day, earning high praise from campaign managers. She also worked closely with several of them to organize folks for door knocking and phone banking.
She and I walked several neighborhoods in south and west Knoxville and had many conversations with voters, some supporters and some undecided. The undecideds were the most instructive. One gentleman in a rural South Knox neighborhood took Greg’s candidate card, then told us he identified as a Reagan Republican. He sighed and looked thoughtfully at the card. “But I’m gonna vote for this guy.” He bit his lip. “I just can’t get behind where the Republican party is going. And I can’t support most of the candidates they’re running.” His wife came into the doorway and smiled at us. “We won’t be voting Republican for some time to come – maybe never.” We heard this opinion many times leading up to election day. Conservative voters were turning away from Republican extremism.
Nationwide, young voters showed up in record numbers. In Michigan, where Democrats won control of the state House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, young voters were critical to Democratic success. University polling stations had long lines and frequently had to stay open late, a situation reflected around the country. Many election deniers lost their races. Abortion rights advocates also drove turnout. California, Michigan, and Vermont secured strong protections for abortion care. Commenters pointed out that voters showed a clear pattern of rejecting the MAGA element and did so across partisan lines. Also, environmental groups mobilized energetically to get their members to the polls and to drive participation in candidates’ GOTV efforts. Tellingly, there were virtually no attacks on Democrats for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest clean energy program yet. This is a huge change from the Democrats’ big loss in 2010 over their support for the cap-and-trade bill. Also, Dems shrugged off Republican attacks blaming Biden for high gas prices, which usually spell trouble for the party in power. Pam Kiely at the Environmental Defense Fund said, "The main thing we can take away … is that strong commitments on climate … are electoral benefits for constituents right now."
It's concerning to us that all our endorsed candidates adopted the traditional Democratic three-part talking points: jobs, education and health care, and said little about the climate. The flaw in the strategy was made glaringly obvious at a house party for Jason Martin where he reiterated the three points, then when his eye met mine, concluded by saying, “Oh, yeah, and the environment!” Given the election outcomes, is it really a good strategy to leave the environment as an afterthought? A recent Scientific American article would suggest not. The article cites a Princeton survey published in late August after the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act. It showed that a large majority of American adults have such distorted beliefs about support for climate policy and concerns about climate in general that the authors called it a “false social reality.” Recent polls from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show that 66 to 80 percent of people in the U.S. support major climate mitigation policies. But very few Americans think that other Americans do. In other words, all of us supporters of strong climate policy think we’re alone in our thinking, while in fact we’re not. Gregg Sparkman, lead author of the new study, feared that such a false impression could lead to self-silencing on climate. People conform to norms, so if we assume something isn’t popular, we don’t talk about it. If we don’t talk about it, candidates figure it’s a non-starter and don’t mention it either. The article cites another study where a large sample of local policymakers had the same distorted view about the unpopularity of climate solutions.
I’ve shared the article with Martin and other candidates I’ve met this election, both winners and losers. We Sierra Clubbers might pass it around to other decision-makers to un-delude them and reinforce the wide popularity of climate action. But the national picture shows we also need to be more energetic about mobilizing ourselves to action. Postcard campaigns and phonebanks made a real difference this November, but nothing beats face-to-face conversation. Our political strength will grow to the extent that we’re willing to get out of our comfort zone and speak with others.