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Green GOP Group Caught Between 'Rock And A Hard Place'

Volunteer Tom Strain carries debris from an empty lot as part of an Earth Day cleanup effort in Camden, N.J. The Earth Day events celebrated on April 22 promote a sustainable and clean environment.
Mel Evans
Volunteer Tom Strain carries debris from an empty lot as part of an Earth Day cleanup effort in Camden, N.J. The Earth Day events celebrated on April 22 promote a sustainable and clean environment.

On Earth Day 2014, it wasn't easy being green in the Republican Party. Just ask Rob Sisson, president of ConservAmerica.

ConservAmerica is a membership organization created in 1995 to keep the environmental spirit of GOP President Theodore Roosevelt alive in his party. Back then, the group was known as Republicans for Environmental Protection.

The problem for Sisson's group is that the polarization of American politics has largely split environmentalism from its TR Republican roots. Environmentalism is now mostly seen as the province of liberals and Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republican orthodoxy is marked by views that are anti-regulation and skeptical about whether humans contribute to global warming.

ConservAmerica's Republicans, however, believe climate change is happening and that people are adding to the problem. That puts Sisson and his group "between a rock and a hard place," he says.

Asked how much success his organization has had in raising conservation's profile in conservative circles, he acknowledges not much.

"It's actually been minimal. The one thing that keeps me and keeps our board going is hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't join or contact us and say, 'Thank God I found you. I was ready to leave the party,' " Sisson says.

His group has 5,000 members, which he believes is in large part due to not having the money to do more aggressive marketing. And why can't it get the money?

"The big funders on the Republican side that people always think about today, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, environmental protection is not of interest to them, so they're not writing those checks," Sisson said. "On the left, the big funders are very reluctant to donate money that might help to burnish the Republican image at all."

Three Republicans running for the House in swing districts — Carl DeMaio in San Diego, Bob Dold in Illinois and Nan Hayworth in New York — all believe in global warming and in taking steps to slow it, he said. [Dold and Hayworth are former House members seeking a return to Congress.]

But Democratic environmentalists haven't supported Republicans who are simpatico on conservation — Democrats would prefer one of their own in a seat since that would increase their numbers in Congress and their chances of success on issues beyond the environment.

"We keep saying, 'If you're smart you would help get people like Carl DeMaio elected where he can start exerting a new fresh voice in leadership and prove to the Republicans that, hey, you can get by, running on environmental protection and conservation issues,' " Sisson said.

Another example of how progressive environmentalists failed to "get it," Sisson said, was when his organization suggested to a working group of conservation outfits formed to organize a celebration of the Endangered Species Act's recent 40th anniversary that they find a way to recognize the role of President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation into law.

"Some of the groups came back and nixed it. They said, 'No, we're not going to honor him.' " So ConserveAmerica presented Nixon's son-in-law Edward Cox with a Theodore Roosevelt Leadership award, to honor the 37th president at its banquet in March. "That was the first time ever Richard Nixon received official recognition for his role in the great environmental laws that he signed back in the 1960s and 1970s," Sisson said.

ConservAmerica accepts climate change as a fact, though it doesn't throw that term around a lot — it's too polarizing. Sisson prefers to talk about clean air and water, figuring that if you make progress on those, you also fight climate change.

But ConservAmerica doesn't line up with environmental groups across the board. For instance, the group supports the Keystone XL pipeline. Its reasoning: The pipeline is the safest way to transport the oil from the tar sands. If the pipeline isn't built, the Canadian oil will still be extracted and transported some other way.

And while the group supports expanding renewable sources of energy, it takes the conservative position of opposing subsidies for them. It also opposes subsidies to the oil industry in the form of existing tax breaks.

It has ditched some past practices, like scoring lawmakers' environmental votes. The group stopped after Republican lawmakers accused them of being "wolves in sheep clothing" and being linked to George Soros — which Sisson says isn't true.

While it's too soon to know if it's a lasting trend, Sisson said a number of GOP candidates for federal and state office have approached ConservAmerica this cycle to say they want to run as "Teddy Roosevelt Republicans" and ask for advice.

"I gave this speech to the largest conservation group in South Carolina two weeks ago. And I had three or four state representatives and a couple of county commissioners come up to me and say, 'We need your help. Why aren't other Republicans talking about this?' Because they're trying to do things like just water conservation. And they're getting beat up because every time they bring it up, they're told 'That's a Sierra Club thing, it's not a Republican thing.' So it really resonates. It's a matter of getting the message out there."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.