Environmentalists are trying to stomp out the suggestion that they had anything to do with the tidal wave that washed away House Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
A day after Republicans netted a 60-vote swing to recapture the House, greens brandished polls and statistics showing voters overwhelmingly endorsed both Democratic and GOP lawmakers who voted in June 2009 to pass a cap-and-trade bill.
They even went so far as to suggest that about two dozen Democrats may have lost Tuesday because they didn’t support the measure crafted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi that would have placed a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
But more than anything, they insisted the wave wasn’t their fault.
“Bottom line: The biggest liability in Tuesday’s election [was] having a ‘D’ behind one’s name,” said Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund Federal Communications Director Ed Chen in an e-mail to POLITICO.
This isn’t just about pride.
Environmental groups struggled to be heard in Washington after the Republicans’ 1994 House takeover, which came in part because of a vote the previous year to raise energy taxes based on the Btu content of fossil fuels. And U.S. opponents of unilateral action on climate change still remind them of the unanimous 1997 Senate vote to reject core pieces of the Kyoto protocol.
“It’s very dangerous branding for them,” said Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute and a skeptic on global warming science. “There will never be another vote on a Btu tax in my lifetime for the reason of 1993. I suggest if cap and trade is similarly thought of, there will also never be a vote on cap and trade.”
Indeed, directly after the cap-and-trade vote — which itself was delayed for an hour while Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) held the floor to decry the bill — House Republicans taunted Democrats with chants of “Btu, Btu.”
President Barack Obama is already trying to distance himself from the Democrats’ unsuccessful climate bill (a measure the White House celebrated at the time). “Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “It was a means, not an end, and I am going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”
Obama also acknowledged that the political noise surrounding the House climate change bill has helped to stymie its momentum for some time to come. “I think there are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year,” he said. “And so it’s doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after.”
Indeed, many of those Republicans who ran against climate change legislation found the issue useful in attacks against incumbents.
Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, for example, lost his campaign in part because he couldn’t get any traction trying to explain his work negotiating key details of the climate bill, said Andy Wright, a former Boucher chief of staff. Boucher also didn’t get any help from Sen.-elect Joe Manchin, his Democratic neighbor in West Virginia, who ran campaign ads on the same local TV stations firing a rifle at the climate legislation.
“When you’ve got a Democrat literally shooting the bill, it implies there’s some damage,” said one environmental advocate.
In New Mexico, freshman Democratic Rep. Harry Teague had made a fortune before running for Congress as an oil supply executive. But he angered his industrial constituents after taking office by voting for the global warming measure, which was widely portrayed in the district as Pelosi driven.
On Tuesday, Teague lost to former Republican Rep. Steve Pearce by a nearly 5-1 margin in Lea County, a heavy industrial region that both call their home, and he couldn’t make up for the deficit in more liberal parts of his sprawling district.
“It was the symbolic example of Pearce’s message, the allegation of whether Harry Teague was representing the best interest of the district,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of the nonpartisan Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque. “The people on the east side [of the district], they were receptive. They were looking for a message for that. Once given, they bought it. They went to the polls with it. And the rest is history.”
Several environmentalists argued Wednesday that Boucher and Teague are unique examples with stories that don’t translate into a national referendum on global warming legislation. Yes, there are 41 Democrats who voted for the House bill who lost, retired or saw their seat fall into GOP hands.
But Ryan Cunningham, from the Glover Park Group public affairs shop, argued, “Most if not all of the losing Dems, of course, also voted for health care, financial reform, the stimulus and dozens of other ‘Nancy Pelosi’ policies targeted by Republican campaigns.”
On top of that, Cunningham noted that 27 of the 43 House Democrats who voted against the climate bill also lost their races, suggesting that those members were three times more likely to lose on Tuesday than the legislation’s supporters.
Officials at the Natural Resources Defense Council cited polls it conducted last month in every close race where Democrats voted for the climate bill, asking about the impact of the global warming proposal. It found troubling results for only two members: Teague and Rep. Zack Space of Ohio, who also lost.
Big picture, it found that more than 80 percent of the 211 Democrats who voted for the climate bill will be coming back for the 112th Congress. On top of that, the five House Republicans who supported the 2009 climate bill and ran for another term won their races: Reps. Mary Bono Mack of California, Leonard Lance of New Jersey, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, Dave Reichert of Washington and Chris Smith of New Jersey.
“We did lose a lot of our very good friends in the United States Congress,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “Big Oil and some of their allies in Congress may try to claim that this was a rejection of clean energy policies. Quite frankly, that’s insulting to voters, and it’s just not true.”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, agreed with the environmentalists that the climate bill had only ripple effects in some races, namely in coal states like West Virginia. “That vote on cap and trade in the House alone I’m not sure would have brought down these candidates,” he said. “It’s part of a picture.”
But Jim Connaughton, former top White House environmental adviser under President George W. Bush, said greens are missing an important lesson by shining the spotlight on the Democrats who won another term. Many of those were safe seats compared with the seats of losers, who had always been nervous about how their climate vote would sell back home.
“The point is the races at the margin,” he said.
Connaughton said environmentalists are also mistaken if they think the 27 Democrats who opposed the House bill and lost on Tuesday would have had better luck if they had voted the in other direction.
“Who did they lose to? They lost to Republicans who are also against it,” he said. “But they were tagged as being part of the agenda that was being advanced.”
Not all greens agreed with the argument that the climate bill didn’t belong in the discussion when dissecting the reasons for Tuesday’s election outcome. One environmental advocate said his colleagues are trying to shift the blame, like all the other interest groups that played a role in the Democrats’ agenda.
“You can’t have the experience of the last couple of years and honestly in your gut believe that this was not detrimental to some Democrats,” the advocate said. “We lost badly. We lost control of the narrative. We lost control of the debate.”
Josh Voorhees contributed to this report. See more here.