Making climate a campaign issue in Georgia’s special election
By Pam Shaouy
The stakes were high in Georgia’s sixth Congressional district special election. The race to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price made local and national headlines for months.
It was the most expensive U.S. House of Representatives race in history, with over $50 million spent on campaigning.
It was an unexpected challenge to a long-held Republican seat in historically conservative suburban Atlanta.
And it was an opportunity to shape the political narrative of the much anticipated 2018 midterm elections.
Amid the analysis and speculation, a group of local Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers created a campaign to help make climate change an issue in the election unfolding in their backyards. The effort was led by CCL North Atlanta chapter leader Jeff Joslin, CCL Roswell chapter volunteer Terry Schiff and myself. The online, nonpartisan VoteClimateGA6 campaign targeted Georgia’s approximately 445,000 registered sixth district voters. The campaign’s short-term goal was to:
- Inform voters about the candidates’ positions on climate change
- Educate voters about the need for climate action
- Encourage voters to vote for candidates who support climate action
“There’s also a longer term goal that we’re building toward,” Jeff explained. “We might have better luck getting new representatives to take Congressional action on climate in the long run if we make climate more of a campaign issue before they’re elected.”
There were three main components to the online campaign: a website, a Facebook page and a GoFundMe page.
Terry generously donated her WordPress website so we could build VoteClimateGA6.com. The website is a one-stop shop for our main messages targeting historically conservative sixth district voters. Three key website pages were:
Our “Market-based Climate Solutions” web page emphasized CCL’s Carbon Fee and Dividend and the economic benefits of the solution. It also highlighted conservative support for climate action.
“Climate and Georgia” summarized the main effects of climate change on Georgia. It can be hard for people to relate to the plight of polar bears or communities halfway around the world. Our hope was that state-specific information and examples would help drive the climate message home.
“The Candidates on Climate” was the most challenging content to acquire. There were 18 candidates in the initial general election. We wanted to publish their official position statements on climate change and energy. Typically these are found on campaign websites, but in our conservative state and district, most of the candidates addressed neither.
Terry persistently pursued their position statements. From phone calls to visiting campaign headquarters to attending events, she respectfully requested the candidates’ positions. She also made requests on their social media accounts, and asked a climate-friendly local journalist to pursue the same.
“Even when we couldn’t get a candidate’s climate position, I think our efforts let the candidates know that their constituents want climate action,” Terry reflected. “So in addition to encouraging voters, I hope our campaign encourages Georgia candidates to better embrace climate issues in future elections.”
Once we had a website, we needed a way to reach sixth district voters and drive them to it. Jeff created a VoteClimateGA6 Facebook business page. The purpose of the page was to:
- Publish posts that drove readers to our website to learn about the candidate’s climate positions
- Publish links to relevant climate and climate solution news articles
- Run advertisements to reach a broad range of sixth district voters with our messaging
We leveraged local election and climate news to create posts to link to related pages on our website. Getting out the vote was also important, so we ran reminder posts about voter registration deadlines, early voting dates and changes in voting locations.
While we didn’t shy away from global climate news, we wanted to show conservative sixth district voters that the Republican Party is slowly but surely greening. Many of our news posts linked to articles about Republican and evangelical support for climate action, and about growth in the renewable energy market.
For all of us, it was our first foray into Facebook advertising. And while it took some trial and error—Facebook is quite persnickety about how much text you can have on an image—we were up and running pretty quickly with a slideshow ad and numerous boosted (paid) posts like the one below.
The graph below shows the reach of our posts in the last days of the campaign. You can see the greater reach of our boosted posts (dark orange) versus the organic reach of our regular Facebook posts. Our reach spiked leading up to June 20th—Election Day—because we ran boosted posts at that time. We stopped running them on the night of the 20th.
Back on our website, the analytics showed corresponding spikes in the numbers of website visitors—an approximate tenfold increase. That told us our Facebook advertising successfully drove more people to our website.
Jeff said, “We reached tens of thousands of 6th district voters with our advertising on Facebook. Our reach and the engagements with our posts were impressive with a relatively small budget.”
While you can spend as little or as much as you want, running Facebook ads costs money. The April 18th general election resulted in a runoff election on June 20th. We knew we needed a bigger advertising budget for the extended two-month-long campaign season.
Jeff created a GoFundMe page for our campaign. Promoted primarily through word of mouth and email, the GoFundMe campaign raised nearly $2,000, largely through the generosity of dedicated CCL volunteers.
Georgia’s still on our minds
Climate change wasn’t addressed in the 2016 presidential debates. By contrast, in the time between the April 18th general election and the June 20th runoff election, we were happy to see climate change prominently addressed. In the final debate between Karen Handel (R) and Jon Ossoff (D), they had a feisty exchange about climate change and the U.S. exit from the Paris Agreement.
The VoteClimateGA6 campaign can be replicated in districts across the country. To help that happen, Jeff and Terry led a session about the campaign in CCL’s National Conference in June.
One of the session attendees was Mark Hand, a climate reporter with the news site ThinkProgress.org. He covered our efforts, and the special election, in his article “Despite Deep Red Roots, Climate Activists are Energized by Georgia Special Election.”
While our campaign garnered enthusiastic support from different groups of people, we don’t have a way to measure how effective it was. But we do know we reached a lot of people with a respectful and informative message. We’re hopeful that it made a difference in the district, and we’ll do it again for the 2018 midterms.
“Our country is having elections where some seats are won and lost by a couple of votes per precinct,” Terry notes. “It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that a campaign like ours can influence the outcome of an election someday.”
The stronger climate advocate didn’t win in Georgia. So now, CCL volunteers begin the work of bringing Rep. Karen Handel onboard with Carbon Fee and Dividend. Because like the sixth district race, the stakes are high.