To win over climate-concerned voters in 2024, environmental groups and many Democrats say they must raise awareness of a signature Biden achievement.
Asked about the Inflation Reduction Act — Biden’s signature legislative achievement, which is pumping billions of dollars into clean energy and other climate programs — she said she thought that it was mostly about raising interest rates, a misconception that illustrates how even the name of the law can be confusing.
“I don’t know what they are really doing,” she said regarding climate, while on her way out of a coffee shop south of Las Vegas. “I only hear the bad stuff. If (Biden’s) doing good stuff — I don’t know. I don’t know a single Democrat who’s excited about Biden.”
Such is the conundrum for Biden, his environmentalist supporters and Democrats, including several lawmakers in Nevada whose reelection campaigns might determine control of Congress. They passed the largest climate bill in history last year, but many voters aren’t giving them any credit for it. Some aren’t even aware of the Inflation Reduction Act, or the IRA, as it is known inside the Beltway.
According to a July poll by The Washington Post, 71 percent of Americans said they have heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the law one year after its passage. Administration officials and political operatives say they have work ahead to change those numbers, but that they are optimistic Americans will eventually notice its impact.
Many are only just starting to learn, said Karen Skelton, a senior adviser in the Biden administration. “It’s so new, it’s hard to imagine unless it’s happening right in front of you, how transformative what we’re going through is.”
Nevada is whipsawed by both extreme weather and divided politics, and it is regularly courted by both parties and their big-dollar donors because of its swing-state status. That is prompting Democrats and their activist allies, ahead of 2024, to double down on their efforts to persuade voters that Biden has taken strong action on the climate.
West of downtown Las Vegas, Nevada’s 3rd District is an expanse of arrow-straight multilane roads. From off-strip casinos such as the Orleans and the Palms — famous two decades ago as a haunt for Paris Hilton and other celebrities — to sprawling suburbs farther west, it is home to thousands of ethnically diverse union workers, largely friendly to Democrats. But the district also rolls south through the rocky desert sacred to the Mojave people, a land of ranchers and other rural voters who are often dedicated Republicans.
That makes it one of the most nation’s most divided and competitive districts, with “nonpartisan” the most active voter registration here. Rep. Susie Lee (D) won her last election here by just 10,000 votes. National donors are already pouring in for a race that has become known as one of the most expensive in Congress.
Lee’s environmental allies helped organize events for Lee and dozens of other candidates last month, when Congress was in recess and lawmakers went back to their districts. Over a span of a few weeks, Lee buzzed around Vegas to senior centers, union halls and the unveiling of the state’s first hydrogen-fueled bus.
“I want people to understand just what’s in that bill and what they can take advantage of,” Lee said before a recent community meeting held at a local library to explain the law’s consumer programs. Her push to Nevada voters? “That we’ve gotten results.”
In this desert oasis, people of all political stripes commonly say they see effects from climate change. Residents suffered through record heat this summer, and fretted about water rationing and a shrinking Lake Mead. A rare Pacific hurricane passed nearby and two monsoonal floods inundated the Las Vegas Strip just since mid-August.
For Democrats such as Lee, the challenge is persuading voters that Biden’s climate investments will both reduce these threats and also help them with new tax breaks, jobs and reduced energy bills.
“It’s all hands on deck to educate the public,” Margie Alt, director of Climate Action Campaign, an advocacy coalition of several environmental and progressive groups, said in an email. The IRA’s investments are now going out to communities, she added, and “we are making it our business to be sure people see, hear and feel the benefits.”
In coming weeks, Alt’s group and other political environmental organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power plan to spend significant sums — they declined to say how much — on climate advertising and events in key swing states, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, along with Nevada.
By moving now, Democrats hope to create a springboard for 2024. Republicans are constant critics, but the Biden administration also faces a drumbeat from left-wing activists. Thousands filled New York streets at Climate Week protests this month and called for President Biden to commit to phasing out the production and consumption of fossil fuels.
The Democrats’ larger strategy, in two main ways, seeks to counter decades of failure and please both left-wing climate critics and pocketbook moderates who just want smaller energy bills. First, the law itself introduced new climate policies that Democrats expect will be more popular than the ideas they failed to pass in the 1990s and 2000s. And now they are pairing that with more aggressive political tactics than what followed the passage of other signature Democratic laws, like the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
Biden bet big that he could work with Congress to approve a giant spending bill to be the cornerstone of his climate agenda. It eschewed taxes or almost anything punitive in favor largely of subsidies for developing cleaner energy. Many of those benefits go straight to retail consumers, with others designed to boost manufacturing and job growth for Americans.
That has juiced manufacturing investment and industrial construction to levels unseen in decades. The independent research firm Rhodium Group, in collaboration with MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, said this month that total domestic investment for clean energy development rose 37% to $213 billion in the year ended June 30.
But that strategy has also opened Biden and Democrats to political attacks on spending. They advocated for the climate plan on top of major bipartisan spending bills for infrastructure and pandemic recovery. And Republicans have frequently blamed those decisions for feeding inflation, deficits and poverty, which rose sharply last year as some pandemic aid ended and prices rose.
Frank Velasquez, 73, is an independent and former Democrat who says he is “very concerned” about climate change, but that “fiscal issues” will be much more important to him. He complimented Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) — who also faces reelection next year — but said he’s still “up in the air” on all 2024 candidates, with reservations about both presidential front-runners, Biden and former president Donald Trump.
“All this spending, sooner or later, something’s got to give,” said Velasquez, who lives on a straight-line street called Romance Circle northwest of downtown Las Vegas. He said that addressing climate change is important but that he distrusts many Democrats. “They’re so liberal, they spend, spend, spend, spend, spend.”
House Republicans have repeatedly tried to kill several of the law’s climate programs, including tax credits for producing zero-emissions electricity, building utility-scale batteries or making those types of investments in poor and minority communities. They have not succeeded, but another budget showdown is looming ahead of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.
Republicans have, however, also welcomed clean energy developments — when their home states benefit from the law. Companies have announced $30 billion in new investments, according to a Climate Power tally, for Georgia and South Carolina — including car factories, battery recyclers and solar-cell manufacturers. Some Republicans in Congress have cheered those investments, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and others who voted against the law.
Nevada becomes much more conservative the farther you get from Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe, and about $7 billion of the $9 billion in investments announced for Nevada are far north of Lee’s district, where Republicans often win elections by 10- to 20-point margins. Tesla and one of its indirect suppliers, Redwood Materials, are each spending more than $3.5 billion on manufacturing sites there, about 25 miles east of Reno.
The region’s Rep. Mark Amodei (R) signed a letter supporting Redwood’s successful request for a $2 billion loan from the Energy Department. But he later went on to vote against the Inflation Reduction Act and rescind programs that would provide funding for other clean-energy projects.
The Democratic-crafted bill was too political and haphazard in the way it raises and doles out money, Amodei said. And he doesn’t think rural voters in his district find many of its programs appealing.
But if Washington is giving out money to clean-energy companies, Redwood deserves it, he added.
“This electrification stuff is the future,” he said. “Look, I lost the vote. But I’m not going to sit here and punish a company in my district that’s doing a good job.”
Democrats and climate advocates say that illustrates how these programs produced popular results, even in more conservative areas. If they campaign effectively, Democrats say that could lead to happy voters once they understand what the law includes.
The Post-UMD poll found that fewer than 40 percent of respondents supported the Inflation Reduction Act, and even fewer reported hearing much about it. But a majority of respondents said they do support programs that were passed as part of the law, including tax credits for solar panel installation, for domestic solar and wind manufacturing, and for homeowners to buy heat pumps.
At the Windmill Library event, organized in conjunction with the League of Conservation Voters, Lee listed several of those programs as she spoke to an audience of about 40 people, mostly her local supporters and environmentalists. Her list includes a 30% tax credit on installing rooftop solar, a $150 credit for homeowners who pay to review their home for ways to save energy and upfront discounts for upgrading to more efficient appliances.
“So many times we hear of these tax packages that are delivered to big corporations and no one quite understands how it trickles down to them,” Lee told the audience while standing in front of a projector screen. “This is money in your pocket.”
Many locals are already starting to benefit, especially from rooftop solar — popular in this sunny desert town. Fidencio Ruiz, 55, a casino restaurant worker and self-professed Trump supporter, ordered a second set of eight rooftop panels when his installer, Sunrun, promised that new state and federal rules would help lower his electricity bills to nearly zero.
Sunrun workers were installing his new panels just three days after Tropical Storm Hilary drenched the American Southwest, which Ruiz brought up as a clear sign that the region has a problem with extreme weather. But he hesitates to support Democrats’ wide-sweeping climate plan, saying he sees it as “just another way of taking a little bit more of our freedoms.”
Based on Sunrun’s calculations, Ruiz could save hundreds of dollars a month on his power bills in part because of the IRA. But he still doesn’t trust the law’s intentions or durability. “The government isn’t going to do s— for you,” he added.
Democratic operatives are wary of political opponents exploiting their signature climate policy to sow fears. Many, including White House officials, cite what happened when Republicans used Obama’s health-care law against Democrats in their successful campaign to take back Congress.
Republicans were, however, unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Democrats argue they can make Biden’s climate law a political winner, too, with enough investment.
That means waves of television ad buys and in-person events. Environmental groups and candidates hope those generate more television news coverage, which political operatives say still catches people’s attention.
But that can be hard. While the Las Vegas floods captured local TV attention while Lee was campaigning in her district, the stories didn’t mention climate change, and were often overshadowed by longer segments on the region’s upcoming Super Bowl and two Beyoncé concerts scheduled for that coming weekend.
Like her conservative counterpart Ruiz, Cantu said she struggles to find trustworthy information. She’s a Bernie fan, she said, because she sees the senator as more energetic than Biden in advocating for people and elevating his own agenda.
“A corporate Democrat is giving away money to companies, and here we are,” she said of the president. “Democrats have promised change for decades and decades and decades, but it’s still the same.”