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In Elections, "D" for Democrat Brought Doom More than Energy Positions

Environmentalists say public support for clean energy remains strong, though "cap and tax" label fired up the opposition

Nov 5, 2010

WASHINGTON—Smack-down. Shellacking. Drubbing. Pasting. Thrashing. Thumping. Trouncing. Walloping.

Indeed, there are as many words to describe what happened to the Democratic Congress during midterms Election Day as there are analysts to provide Wednesday-, Thursday-, and Friday-morning quarterbacking.

A group of seven environmental advocacy organizations presented one hypothesis to reporters Wednesday afternoon at the National Press Club, and it goes something like this: Energy policy—or lack of it—isn’t what caused voters to ditch enough Democrats to give the GOP a resounding majority in the House and more seats in the Senate. And they say they have the poll numbers to back it up. (Also see "Poll: Voters Say Economy, Not Energy, Motivated Ballot Decision")

“Obviously, [the elections] were a little disappointing because we did lose a lot of very good friends,” said League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski, adding that jobs and the economy dominated voters’ decisions. “In state after state, some members who voted for clean energy legislation won and some lost.”

While the cap-and-trade bill didn’t solely cause Democrats’ demise, Karpinski did say it was a contributing factor in some congressional districts.

“When you looked at what voters cared about, it was other issues,” he said.  “But in some races [cap and trade] was the most important.”

Some who were tossed out of office Nov. 2, such as freshman Rep. Harry Teague (D-N.M.), championed their vote for cap-and-trade energy legislation on the campaign trail and were pilloried by their opponents for it. Others, such as veteran Ike Skelton (D-Missouri), ducked and covered from their “yes” vote and lost anyway.

As of Friday morning, Republicans had gained 61 House seats, with nine contests still undecided. Beforehand, the lower chamber was made up of 257 Democrats and 178 Republicans. It is being called the largest swing since the 1948 elections when Democrat Harry S. Truman was president.

On the Senate side, the Democratic caucus will have a slimmer majority of 53 to 47—if a Republican in Alaska eventually emerges as the winner.

"This election was indeed the year of The Empire Strikes Back," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Big Oil and corporate polluters spent in record amounts to try to buy back our government, eclipsing progressive groups’ election spending by nearly 2 to 1.”

Karpinski, Brune and the others spoke on the heels of a White House press conference where President Barack Obama said he is intent on forging ahead with a clean energy economy but pointed out that “cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat. It was not the only way. It was a means, not an end. And I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”

Cap-and-Trade Supporters Targeted

No doubt, Republicans contributed to confusion and suspicion about a cap-and-trade approach to curbing heat-trapping gases by labeling it as “cap and tax” during the campaign season and vilifying the Democrats who supported the American Clean Energy and Security Act, co-authored by Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

Despite Tuesday’s losses, environmentalists point out that more than 80 percent of the 211 Democrats who voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act will be returning to the 112th Congress.

Plus, five of the eight Republicans who joined Democrats in that vote fared well Tuesday. Voters re-elected Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington, Mary Bono Mack of California, and Chris Smith, Leonard Lance and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey. The other three weren’t contending for House seats this year.

About 30 Democrats who voted for Waxman-Markey went down to defeat Tuesday. That figure doesn’t include losses in open seats, where the incumbent chose not to run. The list of losers includes old bulls such as Rick Boucher of Virginia, John Spratt of South Carolina, Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Skelton.

But it also encompasses a significant number of newcomers such as Tom Perriello of Virginia, Betsy Markey of Colorado, Suzanne Kosmas and Ron Klein of Florida, John Boccieri and Zack Space of Ohio, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, Baron Hill of Indiana, Mark Schauer of Michigan and Teague. Many of these Democrats had surprised political handicappers in 2006 and 2008 by squeaking to victory in Republican strongholds.

Brune also pointed out that 27 of the 44 House Democrats who voted against Waxman-Markey either retired or were beaten out by a Republican.

All of that math, green groups say, give credence to their theory that this year, “D” stood for doomed. Democrats started out at a deficit in an election year with a 9.5 percent unemployment rate, a sour economy, a vocal Tea Party movement and angry voters in an anti-Washington mode.

Clearly, however, a Democrat’s nod for Waxman-Markey fired up some constituents, especially if it came in tandem with votes for the stimulus package, health care reform or bailing out the financial sector.

“Those who predicted a large turnover of House and Senate seats were right,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. “Those who predicted that a vote for climate change legislation would be a significant factor in that turnover were wrong. This was an election about unhappiness over the economy, first and last. And the majority paid the price.”

Meanwhile, Back at the White House

“We’re not going to get a comprehensive bill like we did in the last Congress,” Karpinski said. “That’s not going to happen.”

He and President Obama are evidently on the same page.

During his Wednesday press conference with reporters, Obama all but conceded that it is virtually impossible for Congress to pass a comprehensive energy bill that includes a cap-and-trade measure.

However, he cited energy as an issue where he envisions Democrats and Republicans compromising to craft bipartisan legislation. He listed electric vehicles, nuclear power and development of the natural gas industry as common-ground conversation-starters.

“Let’s go ahead and start making some progress on the things that we do agree on,” Obama said, “and we can continue to have a strong and healthy debate about those areas where we don’t.”

He also defended the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to limit carbon emissions, saying the agency is under a Supreme Court order to do so. And he pointed out that EPA leaders have asked Congress to take the initiative on limiting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Obama emphasized that he didn’t want to ignore the science of global warming while pursuing clean-energy solutions that create jobs and position the United States competitively.

“With respect to the EPA,” he said about how to complement their efforts with congressional action, “I think the smartest thing for us to do is to see if we can get Democrats and Republicans in a room who are serious about energy independence and are serious about keeping our air clean and our water clean and dealing with the issue of greenhouse gases.”

The Sierra Club's Brune emphasized that the election was not a prescript for eviscerating the EPA.

“The mandate was very clear,” Brune said. “Voters are concerned about the economy and the lack of jobs. Gutting the Clean Air Act and muzzling the EPA is not a viable jobs-creation strategy.”

See Also:

VA Clean Energy Champion Perriello Loses Close Race

Study: Only 47% of Republicans Think Global Warming Is Happening

To Get Elected, Florida's Rubio Leaving Climate Action Past Behind

Sparks Fly in Big-Dollar Shootout For New Mexico House Seat

Are Democrats Fumbling Away a Potent Clean Energy Offense?

BP Oil Spill, Gridlock in Congress, Already Shaping November Elections in 4 States

New Hampshire Candidates Quiet on Climate and Clean Energy

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