Expanding the Republican Tent With Smart Environmental Policy

Russell Kirk, Prominent American Conservative and Author of The Conservative Mind
Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” – Russell Kirk (1918-1994), Prominent American Conservative and Author of The Conservative Mind

Republicans looking for lessons learned from the last election should note how a balanced environmental platform helped Republican John Vihstadt win reelection to the county board in Arlington, Virginia – one of the most liberal places in America.  Vihstadt ran as an independent and was first elected to the board in a special election last April. His reelection was the first time a non-Democrat had won an Arlington County Board seat in a general election since 1982. Arlingtonians across the political spectrum – from Democrats to conservative Republicans like myself to Tea Partiers – celebrated his victory.

Vihstadt is a self-described “big-tent Republican.” He ran what he called a “fusion” campaign that was explicitly nonpartisan. His primary focus was local fiscal issues, and he led with opposition to an ill-conceived streetcar project estimated to cost over $500 million. But Vihstadt did not just oppose a bad Democratic idea; he balanced his position with support of bus rapid transit, the Washington Metro rail system, and other transportation alternatives that make sense in urban areas like Arlington.

As they say, elections have consequences. In a stunning reversal, the Arlington County Board decided shortly after the general election to cancel the streetcar project.

Vihstadt’s success also has helpful political implications. This Weekly Standard piece calls his April election a potential “rebirth of the Republican Party in Virginia.” The article explains the broader political importance of his election and the need for enhancing our party’s appeal in liberal areas:

To have a reasonable chance at winning statewide [in Virginia] these days, a Republican candidate has at the very least to split the vote in the Northern Virginia counties of Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun. In 2009, Bob McDonnell did better than that—61 percent in Loudoun and 59 in Prince William—to win his gubernatorial race handily. Four years later, Ken Cuccinelli fell below 50 in Loudoun and Prince William and was blown out in Fairfax on his way to a three-point loss to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

But Republicans could take a valuable lesson from the Vihstadt victory. Tom Davis, the former Republican congressman from Fairfax County, says the GOP has been too bogged down in ideological purity tests that result in candidates too conservative for Northern Virginia. The party, Davis says, needs to learn to “run candidates that fit the districts.”

You could call that the Vihstadt rule, and Pat Mullins, chairman of the Virginia GOP, assures me that his party will be following it. “There are going to be very strong candidates in Northern Virginia,” says Mullins.

While there are many reasons for Vihstadt’s success, his thoughtful environmental platform certainly played a key role. Arlington is one of the greenest communities in America, so he could not have won by leading with the streetcar issue unless he also supported other public transit options.

Another top environmental issue in the Vihstadt campaign involved a park across the street from my house. The local school system proposed in May 2014 to build a new elementary school on or near the park. Several neighbors and I organized a group to save the park. Vihstadt agreed with us and promised to help preserve it. His pledge was probably a major reason why he flipped my neighborhood’s precinct from a loss in the special election to a win in the general.

Vihstadt’s campaign indicates that a balanced environmental platform can help Republicans win even in Democratic areas. We do not have to adopt liberal positions to create such a platform. Good stewardship of the environment is a conservative value as well. As leading 20th Century conservative thinker Russell Kirk said, “Nothing is more conservative than conservation.” Roger Scruton’s groundbreaking 2012 book How to Think Seriously About the Planet provides a masterful explanation of how conservative principles apply to various environmental issues and why these principles lead to better solutions.

I have knocked on countless doors for Republican candidates and rarely have anything winsome to say to environmentally conscious voters. Fellow Republicans often agree with me that we should take more thoughtful positions on the environment rather than simply react to misguided liberal ideas. Now is the time to turn this sentiment into action. Not only is it the right thing to do, but as Vihstadt showed us, it can help win elections.

Note: I wrote this post in my personal capacity and not as a representative of my employer, Earth Stewardship Alliance, or any other group.