4) Impossible dreams may not be.
Just ask Rodger Schlickeisen, head of the national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. Alarmed by the environmental policies of Bush and the Republican Congress, he set up the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund in 2001 to get more involved in political campaigns. At first, the fund just lobbied Congress. In 2004, it worked on Democrat John Kerry’s failed attempt to unseat Bush. But in 2005, Schlickeisen surveyed the political landscape and set his sights on environmentalists’ top enemy in Congress: California Congressman Richard Pombo.
As chairman of the key House Resources Committee, Pombo, a far-right Republican, pushed bills trying to sell federal land and drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while killing proposals to designate federal lands as wilderness. Most notably, he led the effort to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act.
A seven-term incumbent whose family was once the largest landowner in his farm-oriented district, located inland from San Francisco, Pombo looked unbeatable to many political experts. Reapportionment after the 2000 Census put some San Francisco suburbs in his district, but Republicans still held a 6 percent advantage in voter registration.
Schlickeisen sent in a team to do polling and focus groups in September 2005. The team found that, beneath the surface, many voters were turned off by Pombo’s extremism and by allegations that he’d misused funds and aided developers. The action fund began running TV ads that portrayed Pombo as stealing candy from babies and quoted newspaper editorials that called him "slimy" and "the Dark Knight of the Environment."
The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund team — a field director and four college-age lieutenants — moved into the district in early spring. They set up an office suite with wall maps, computers and boxes full of detailed voter data and rented a fleet of vans to haul volunteers, who began canvassing door-to-door. The Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Americans for Conservation, and a small California group called Ocean Champions joined the effort. Schlickeisen also pulled in the Humane Society, because, he says, "Pombo was their biggest enemy on animal welfare."
The environmentalists’ $1.5 million anti-Pombo campaign eventually backed the ultragreen candidate who won the Democratic primary, wind-energy consultant Jerry McNerney. They were helped by Pombo’s personality. "Pombo is so damn arrogant, he refused to believe he could be beaten," Schlickeisen says. "We really didn’t have that much money for a 13-month campaign, but he wasn’t really responding."
Pombo and his party didn’t recognize the threat until October. "They poured in about a million and a half dollars," Schlickeisen says, "and they sent the vice president out, and the majority leader, and the First Lady, and Bush himself, to try to rescue Pombo." The Democrats’ national funders hung back, he says, until the final weeks, when even they realized Pombo might be beatable. "The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee finally came to the party," Schlickeisen says, "putting in a few hundred thousand dollars."
In the home stretch, the environmentalist team recruited hundreds of volunteers, ran a phone bank and knocked on 75,000 doors, making sure the right people turned out to vote. On election night, as the vote counted up to 53 percent for McNerney, Schlickeisen celebrated at the Democrat’s headquarters.
"A lot of people are declared unbeatable," Schlickeisen says. "You have to figure out whether that’s just conventional wisdom talking. You have to analyze the situation. Some people are thought to be unbeatable, and they are.
"And (with) others, there’s a hidden weakness."
(P.S.: Defenders’ Action Fund also targeted 25 other congressmen who’d voted for Pombo’s attempts to gut the Endangered Species Act and who looked vulnerable, putting money, but no staffers, into opposing them. Fifteen lost their seats, including Arizona’s Hayworth.)
5) Enemies may be allies.
Idaho’s biggest environmental group, the Idaho Conservation League, has long battled industries and their politicians — the Republicans who’ve controlled the Legislature and most statewide offices since 1994 — over water and air pollution and other green issues. But the group has also learned how to succeed in its seemingly hostile political habitat by finding islands of agreement with the other side. That openness proved more valuable than ever in this election.
The biggest threat Idaho faced at the ballot box, in the eyes of many environmentalists, was Proposition 2, a radical libertarian measure that sought to drastically limit land-use regulation. It would have forced state and local governments to pay property owners compensation for any reduction in property values caused by land-use regulations — part of a bigger libertarian campaign that pushed ballot measures against various government powers in eight Western states.
On its face, Proposition 2 appealed to Idaho’s traditional support for property rights. Two months before the election, it had no organized opposition. But Idaho Conservation League executive director Rick Johnson and others saw it would be a disaster: It would undermine not only environmental regulations, but also any regulations that protect communities from rapid growth and development that conflicts wildly with existing uses. Johnson also understood that the alarm had to be spread beyond the environmentalist ranks.
He began by shelling out about $17,000 for polling that tested how the anti-Proposition 2 message would be best framed, and what kind of spokesmen would best carry the message. Then he showed the poll results — which also suggested that voters would oppose Proposition 2, once they understood its real ramifications — to Republican leaders and representatives of major industry groups, including the state’s 800-pound business gorilla, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. They jumped in to oppose the anti-regulation proposition, as did other environmental groups.