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

Poll data show mounting voter concern, desire for climate and energy solutions

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WASHINGTON—Tick tock. As the sultry insufferable days of early July ooze toward the dog days of August, the U.S. Senate and oil giant BP are grappling with monumental endeavors that, at first glance, might seem entirely separate.

But political observers will tell you that the Senate’s attempts to fashion some sort of acceptable climate and energy legislation and BP’s push to finish and finesse two relief wells in the Gulf of Mexico are intertwined enough to profoundly influence the nation’s energy future and the outcome of midterm elections in November.

The success or failure of one or both undertakings will certainly alter and influence the energy and climate conversation candidates engage in as congressional campaigns get going in earnest. So far, races in 4 states are already talking about energy and global warming emissions at this early stage of campaigning, with poll data showing strong voter concern and a desire for new solutions. 

In election years, the unofficial end to legislative progress occurs when the chamber’s August recess begins. So, once senators return from their Independence Day break July 12, they have only 20 days between then and Aug. 9 to figure out if they can harness 60 votes for a bill that tackles heat-trapping gases and addresses a clear path toward clean energy.

The Senate probably won’t act that quickly, however, unless the White House deploys an exceptionally large hammer — which means that races across the country are likely to be significantly influenced by voter reaction to Congressional gridlock, and whether BP’s runaway well is still gushing oil when they pull the lever.

Is a national pattern already emerging as campaigners draw their battle lines in Florida and California, Nevada and Virginia? 

BP continues to estimate that its two relief wells will be completed in the first half of August—about the time the Senate enters its summer recess. Work on the first well began May 2, and work on the second started May 16. BP has consistently stuck to a three-month completion timeline for both.

If the relief wells once and for all halt the flow of millions of barrels of oil and natural gas that have sullied coastlines and deep water ecosystems across the Gulf, legislative action on climate and energy might not seem as pressing in a nation of short attention spans that grinds forward on a schedule of election cycles.

But if the relief wells are a bust, the spill that has escalated into an ecological and economic calamity could further mute shouts of “Drill, baby, drill!” and perhaps help climate and energy issues nudge aside jobs and the economy from its No. 1 perch of citizen concerns.

League of Conservation Voters Eyes Connection

While its still early in this year’s election cycle—many voters often don’t tune in to mid-term elections until after Labor Day—Tony Massaro of the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters notes that the public is ahead of the politicians on the energy and global warming front.

“But that’s not unusual,” Massaro, senior vice president for political affairs, tells SolveClimate in an interview. “We think the BP oil spill is going to continue to have a high response from the public. Our challenge is to do the pivot from the oil spill. That is, take the attention being paid to energy and make sure that it extends to action on climate.”

He points to the results of a league poll that the Benenson Strategy Group released in June showing overwhelming public support for comprehensive energy legislation that encompasses more than just having BP pay for damages.

“Voters firmly believe Congress needs to do more than just make BP pay for the Gulf Coast oil spill,” says Joel Benenson, president of the New York group that conducted the poll. “They want senators to pass real reforms to invest in clean American energy and hold polluters accountable.”

Benenson’s pollsters executed two nationwide telephone polls of registered voters to collect their data. The first set of interviews was conducted May 4-5, with the second following between May 25 and June 1.

Briefly, 63 percent of likely voters told pollsters they support an energy bill that would limit pollution, invest in domestic energy sources and encourage companies to use and develop clean energy by charging energy companies for carbon pollution. The measure garnered 81 percent support among Democrats, 63 percent support among Independents and 45 percent support among Republicans.

In addition, this approach to an energy bill drew 71 percent support from those likely to vote for a Democratic candidate this year, 60 percent support from those likely to vote for a Republican and 62 percent support among undecided voters.

Results show that those polled rejected the idea that an energy bill would harm middle class families and kill jobs.

“Our numbers show that even when you use strong negative arguments against cap and trade, this legislation still holds voter support,” Massaro says. “Whether or not some type of bill moves forward in the Senate is up to (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and the Obama administration.”

Where Energy and Climate Issues Resonate

Energy and climate issues will continue to percolate at varying levels in congressional races, Massaro says. Right now, he added, his organization is paying particularly close attention to races in Florida, California, Virginia and Nevada.

“The truth is, there aren’t that many races that have communicated to the broad public yet,” Massaro says. “They are all pretty ‘insider’ right now.”

Far and away the most intriguing contest in the nation is the Florida Senate race, he says, where incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist switched his affiliation from Republican to Independent in response to a fierce challenge from Republican Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House. Political newcomer Jeff Greene and Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., are the two major Democratic candidates, where a primary election is set for Aug. 24.

All are vying for the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. Last summer, Crist appointed Republican George LeMieux to fill Martinez’s unexpired term.

“It’s hard to say how this one is going to play out,” Massaro says, noting that Crist’s poll numbers shot up at least 10 points in the last few weeks after he appeared with President Obama during his Gulf visits and laid out a plan for how Florida would handle the oil in its waters and along its beaches and wetlands.

Outlook in the Golden State

On the opposite coast, Massaro points to a three-part scenario unfolding in California. One is a ballot measure (Proposition 23) to suspend the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32) and the other two are battles for a Senate seat and the governorship.

Back on June 8, Golden State primary voters chose former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina as the Republican opponent to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, is a longtime advocate of cap and trade legislation as the way to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In the gubernatorial race, voters selected former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman as the Republican challenger to Jerry Brown, the current state attorney general who is the former governor and ex-mayor of Oakland.

“Obviously, California is huge, so we’re very committed to winning each of these connected battles,” Massaro says, about the league’s support of Boxer, Brown and AB 32. “Whitman has said she would repeal AB 32 but hasn’t said anything about the ballot measure yet.”

California passed the far-reaching and unique AB 32 as Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger read the green tea leaves and morphed into the climate governor.

In a nutshell, the proposition touted by supporters as the “California Jobs Initiative,” requires the state to abandon implementing its comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction program that includes increased renewable energy, cleaner fuel requirements, and mandatory emission reporting and fee requirements for major polluters such as power plants and oil refineries. Suspension of AB 32 would not be lifted until the state unemployment rate drops from 12.4 percent to 5.5 percent for four successive quarters.

On the Front Burner in Nevada and Virginia

Thus far, climate and energy are expected to resonate in Nevada, Virginia and Colorado, Massaro says.

He says Democrat Reid should be victorious in Nevada after voters in the Silver State nominated tea party insurgent Sharron Angle instead of Sue Lowden as his Republican opponent in the June 8 primary.

Massaro anticipates that Tim Fasano, a third-party Nevada Senate candidate with the right-wing Independent American Party, to siphon votes away from Angle. That would allow Reid to remain in the Senate as a vote for climate change legislation and against storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

“Nevada is the only state in the country where you can vote for none of the above,” Massaro explains, adding that this oddity, paired with Fasano’s continued candidacy, could allow Reid to sneak in with 43 percent to 47 percent of the vote. “Reid’s polling close to that now. And I expect that to hold once voters get to know Angle and are exposed to Reid’s millions of dollars.”

Across Virginia, four high-profile House races have put energy and climate in the spotlight. Three incumbents are being blamed for their support of the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the U.S. House in June 2009. Challengers say the bill crafted by Democratic Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California threatens Virginia’s coal jobs and will raise electricity prices.

And, with BP’s Gulf debacle continuing to dominate headlines, Republicans and Democrats are trading barbs about when and if Virginia should proceed with offshore drilling. In late May, President Obama announced that he was halting plans to allow the sale of leases that would lead to offshore drilling in the state.

Democrat Rep. Tom Perriello defended his vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act because he envisioned it as a way to turn his district in the south central region of Virginia into the future energy capital of the state.

While Perriello has supported shallow water offshore drilling in the past as long as certain safety measures are enforced, he said via a spokeswoman that Obama’s action was appropriate because of the BP situation.

Perriello’s opponent is Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt. Hurt’s campaign manager told The Washington Post that he supports safe and responsible offshore drilling and that he agreed with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who called Obama’s recent action a mistake.

As congressional races tumble toward Election Day, the League of Conservation Voters will continue to prod candidates to follow the public’s lead by not punting on climate and energy legislation.

“The evidence shows that right now, energy and climate are a big issue,” Massaro concludes. “Our challenge is to make sure this works for the candidates who are working for the right way forward on a climate bill. With this legislation, the question isn’t if something happens, but how.”

(Photo: Tom Arthur. Maps: US Census)