Most people don’t associate the outdoors with politics and government policy. Around Washington, D.C., and state capitals, many take to the woods with the explicit goal of forgetting about politics for a while.
Yet the outdoor environment and recreation there is inextricably linked to what happens in the halls of Congress and other political arenas. Whether it’s ownership of public lands or the quality of our environment, funding for land management agencies or the trade and tax policies affecting gear manufacturers, what happens in the outdoors is dramatically affected by elected lawmakers.
With America more politically polarized than any time in the last 50 years, November’s congressional midterm elections carry higher-than-usual stakes. Beyond the issues that vary by district and state, voters will decide who controls both the Senate and House of Representatives. That will, in turn, determine the broader shape of politics in the country, including its wildlands.
Although outdoors issues aren’t considered as divisive as cultural wedges such as guns and abortion, they have their constituencies. The League of Conservation Voters and the Outdoor Industry Association both issue lawmaker scorecards rating representatives on their votes on legislation affecting the environment and outdoors.
Advocacy groups don’t limit their involvement to scoring lawmakers. The Sierra Club, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has contributed $60,516 in the 2018 cycle so far. The Outdoor Industry has contributed $28,296. And the League of Conservation Voters already has spent $2.4 million, mostly on candidates.
Some of this activity is a matter of course for Washington politics. Yet there’s also no doubt that Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Republicans winning majorities in both congressional chambers, and the decisive shift in policy and lawmaking since then has energized conservation and public lands advocates.
In April 2017, Trump ordered a review of all 27 national monuments created since 1996. In December, he signed an executive order to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. Political maneuvering in Utah around public lands, including calls to sell federal lands to the state, led the Outdoor Industry Association to move its Outdoor Retailer show from Salt Lake City, where it had run for two decades, to Denver, Colorado.
The same dynamic played into the OIA’s decision to release and publicize its congressional scorecard.
“The monuments review galvanized this industry and made it operate in an entirely different way,” said Alex Boian, the OIA’s political director. “Some of the brands got more vocal about the policies and their disappointment with what was happening. During the comment period on the monument review, more than 3 million Americans registered comments, and the majority said to leave the monuments intact. We really saw the American people stand up for public lands.”
The OIA started planning its 2018 theme #VoteTheOutdoors last fall. The organization’s goals are different than some other groups in that it prioritizes not just conservation and public lands measures but also tax and trade policy, which matter to its members who manufacture outdoor gear. Boian said the organization is endorsing roughly 20 candidates and ballot measures, mostly in western states, but it is publicizing its congressional scorecard for a national audience to build momentum for the 2020 elections.
“We really think the outdoor industry, the outdoor recreation economy, and protection of public land will be voting issues in the election this fall,” Boian said. “If we can prove that and help foster that in these races, then going into 2020 it’s going to be even stronger.”
Most observers see an easier path for Democrats to win a majority in the House than in the Senate this fall. To win a House majority, Democrats need to net 23 seats—the same number of Republicans that hold seats representing districts won in 2016 by Hillary Clinton. Instead of focusing just on those districts, however, Democrats have broadened the field to target other congressional seats, even in areas where Trump won decisively.
In the Senate, Republicans hold 51 seats to the Democrats’ 47, with two independents caucusing with Democrats. The path to a Senate majority is narrower but demographically harder, with fewer paths to victory.
With both chambers potentially up for grabs, here are six key races to watch in Blue Ridge Outdoors country this fall.
The Mountain State has tilted increasingly Republican since 2000, when four of five of its seats on Capitol Hill were held by Democrats. That may have culminated last year, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 42 points, the most in state history and second only in the country to Wyoming. That’s put all eyes on Joe Manchin, the only Democrat still standing in West Virginia’s congressional delegation.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey emerged victorious from a tough primary fight in which he defeated 3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins (more on that district below) and former Massey Energy coal baron Don Blankenship, who somehow won nearly 20 percent of the vote despite decades of environmental atrocities, miners’ deaths, and a criminal conviction for conspiring to skirt mine safety rules.
Morrisey is running as a Trump Republican, but he may have trouble painting Manchin as a Clinton Democrat. Manchin has long branded himself as a centrist. His first campaign for the Senate included an ad in which Manchin used a gun to shoot a bill to reduce air pollution by instituting a cap-and-trade system. Since Trump’s election, Manchin has played the role of swing voter, occasionally breaking with Democrats to support the president’s cabinet appointments but sticking with his party on healthcare and other issues.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Corker was among those to receive an F on the Outdoor Industry Association’s scorecard, but he is retiring. With his seat open, former governor Phil Bredesen won the Democratic nomination and will face Republican nominee Marsha Blackburn, a 16-year congresswoman.
Tennessee leans Republican as a matter of course. The GOP holds seven of the state’s 9 House seats, and Democrats haven’t held either of its U.S. Senate seats since the mid-’90s. Trump won it by 26 points, so Democrats have a difficult slog ahead. However, pre-primary polling showed Bredesen with a lead over Blackburn, which gives Democrats some hope. The winner will represent a state with a thriving tourism industry that includes its share of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which drew 11 million visitors in 2017, making it America’s most popular national park.
House of Representatives:
Kentucky’s 6th District
KY-6 includes parts of Appalachian Kentucky but also the metro area around Lexington. It’s flipped back and forth between parties since the late ’70s, and since 2013 has been represented by Republican Andy Barr. He blew out his 2016 opponent, but this year faces a very different political atmosphere and opponent. Amy McGrath, a charismatic former fighter pilot, defeated Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in a May primary, largely by building a national fundraising network on the strength of her campaign ads. McGrath functions as the ideal 2018 Democratic candidate, both as a veteran and as one of a record-breaking number of women to run for office.
Pennsylvania’s 17th District
Earlier this year, federal courts rejected Pennsylvania’s congressional districts and drew their own, with the result that incumbents Keith Rothfus, a Republican, and Conor Lamb, a Democrat, now live in the same western Pennsylvania district. Rothfus won election in 2012, narrowly defeating a Democratic incumbent after narrowly losing in 2010 to a different Democratic incumbent. Now he faces Conor Lamb, a Marine and former federal prosecutor who won a special election to Congress earlier this year. Lamb represents one model for success among several that Democrats are pursuing this fall: a scrappy, pro-labor veteran with enough independence from the national party that voters feel confident he or she will fight for them.
Virginia’s 5th District
The 5th once was a rural Southside Virginia seat dominated by tobacco and textile manufacturing, but economic decline and gerrymandering have stretched it north to the point that Charlottesville has become its center. Until this spring, it appeared that it would be defended by freshman Congressman Tom Garrett, a Republican. In May, however, Politico published a story in which former aides alleged he verbally abused them, and later that week, Garrett announced he was an alcoholic and would retire. Republicans subsequently nominated distillery owner Denver Riggleman, who faces journalist and filmmaker Leslie Cockburn. Republicans have accused Cockburn of anti-Semitism in a 1991 book she wrote; Democrats have accused Riggleman of an interest in, um, Bigfoot erotica. Buckle up, this is going to be a weird one.
West Virginia’s 3rd District
Trump won this southern West Virginia district by 50 points in 2016, but WV-3 was actually held by Democrats up until 2014, when former Democrat Evan Jenkins switched parties to defeat longtime incumbent Nick Rahall. With Jenkins leaving to unsuccessfully run for the Senate, the 2018 campaign for his open seat has become one of the most closely watched House races in America. That’s due almost entirely to Richard Ojeda, a charismatic Democratic state senator who advocates for legalized marijuana, openly supported Trump in 2016, was brutally assaulted days before he defeated an entrenched incumbent in a primary that year, and became a hero of the 2018 teacher’s strike. He’s running against Carol Miller, a state delegate whose father represented an Ohio district in Congress.
The race for governor in Georgia will be closely watched around the country. After years of mostly centrist white male governors, this year’s candidates, Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, represent radically different views of America that in many ways echo national political and cultural clashes. Kemp is a populist in the Trump mold, proudly politically incorrect with ads that showed him brandishing a shotgun and offering to use his own truck to take immigrants back. Abrams, who could become the country’s first African American woman governor, built her primary campaign on an unabashedly progressive platform that includes affordable childcare, economic fairness, and clean energy jobs. Demographically, Georgia has been growing more diverse, and in November its voters will choose between two bright-line candidates who represent very different directions.
The Volunteer State has seen Democrats and Republicans trade stints as governor in roughly equal measure since 1970. The outgoing governor is Republican Bill Haslam, whose net worth of more than $2 billion makes him the richest governor in America, including West Virginia resort and coal magnate Jim Justice. The state is home to much of the Smokies and Cherokee National Forest, with numerous state parks. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is running as the Democratic nominee and will face businessman and political newcomer Bill Lee, who won a four-way primary that broke campaign spending records.
The “green space” amendment would change the Georgia state constitution to set aside up to 0.75 percent of sales and use taxes on outdoor recreation equipment to maintain, restore, or buy land, waterways, or parks for conservation and outdoor activities. The amendment, paired with action by state lawmakers, could funnel tens of millions of dollars into conservation and outdoor recreation in the state. Although the Outdoor Industry Association is focusing mostly on western races, it heavily supports this ballot measure.