GOP Targets ‘Clean Coal’ Champion Boucher in Virginia Race

Toppling the 14-term Democrat would reshape dynamics of climate and energy in the House

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WASHINGTON—Rep. Rick Boucher is no stranger to shrewdness. On behalf of the fossil fuel stranglehold on his home district, the Virginia Democrat forced his liberal colleagues to reconfigure the House climate bill until it included tens of millions of dollars for “clean coal” technology.

But that tough bargaining of the past seems almost immaterial now.

This campaign season, Republicans are unleashing a multi-pronged attack on the 14-term Boucher, hoping his “yes” vote on the cap-and-trade bill will persuade voters to support his opponent Morgan Griffith Nov. 2. The GOP evidently sees this as a chance to gain one of the 39 seats needed to become the majority party in the House. 

“It’s purely a political opportunity,” David Jenkins, government affairs director with Republicans for Environmental Protection, told SolveClimate News in an interview. “The Republicans probably agree with Boucher more than they don’t but he’s part of the Democratic majority, so they’re going after him by using his Waxman-Markey vote against him.”

Though polls show Boucher still leads Griffith, the Republican majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, at least one political handicapper has moved the race to the “toss-up” category. 

As well, observers who delve deep into the political tea leaves know that a Boucher loss plus a Republican majority would add up to a reshaped House Energy and Commerce Committee that is far less muscular on bold climate and energy legislation.

As a senior member of the committee, Boucher serves on two subcommittees, one being Energy and Environment. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., turned the committee into a force of nature in 2008 when he wrested power from Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and called on fellow progressive Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., to push the American Clean Energy and Security Act through the House in 2009.

The Latest in Boucher Territory

Boucher represents Virginia’s 9th District, a huge swath of the mountainous southwestern part of the state surrounded by West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

During last winter’s record-breaking snowfalls in the mid-Atlantic region, the Virginia Republican Party opportunistically equated the weather with climate and skewered Boucher for his cap-and-trade vote.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and a conservative advocacy group called Americans for Job Security are the latest to put Boucher on the spot. The latter’s ad accuses Boucher of potentially costing Virginia more than 50,000 jobs and burdening Virginians with higher energy taxes and prices because of his vote to support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in her quest for climate legislation.

Americans for Job Security led all interest groups between Sept. 6 and 12 by spending $1.28 million assailing four Democratic House candidates nationwide, according to a chart in The Washington Post on Sept. 14.

Boucher has countered with his own recently released ad. It features a headline from The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper proclaiming “Boucher is coal’s man.” The ad also highlights Jim McGlothin, founder of Virginia’s United Coal Co., touting Boucher as coal’s best friend in Washington who took on his own party to protect Virginia’s coal interests.

What the Poll Numbers Say

Thus far, prognosticators at nonpartisan forecasting organizations such as the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics via professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball Web site have categorized the Boucher-Griffith race as leaning Democratic.

But Real Clear Politics is now labeling the Virginia race as a toss-up. That switch is evidently based on a change in polling numbers released by Survey USA. Boucher’s 13-point lead over Griffith shrank to 10 points between mid-July and early September.

Neither the League of Conservation Voters nor the Sierra Club has endorsed either candidate. Boucher environmental voting record has earned him a 69 percent lifetime rating in the scorecard compiled by the League of Conservation Voters. His score for 2009 was 100 percent.

A spokesman for the Sierra Club pointed out that while Boucher was the linchpin in the House’s passage of the Waxman-Markey bill, many environmental organizations were dissatisfied with rewards handed out to the coal industry.

“Historically, the Energy and Commerce Committee has always been bulked up with members from energy-producing states, and chairman Dingell was happy to have it that way,” said Dave Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming and energy programs, said in an interview, referring to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

Only recently, Hamilton added, has Democratic leadership been able to alter that scenario by appointing progressives such as Peter Welch of Vermont, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Jerry McNerney of California, and Betty Sutton and Zack Space of Ohio.

In addition to Boucher, committee members Space, Sutton, McNerney and Baron Hill of Indiana are duking it out in tight races in their home states.

No matter who is in charge of the House next session, the tenor of the committee could change because of the departures of longstanding Democrats Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Bart Stupak of Michigan and Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and Republicans John Shadegg of Arizona, George Radanovich of California and Roy Blunt of Missouri. Both Melancon and Blunt are running for Senate seats, while the others are retiring.

Neutered Energy and Commerce Committee?

Granted, cap-and-trade climate legislation might never make another appearance on Capitol Hill now that opponents have hijacked the term and disparagingly renamed it “cap-and-tax” and a “national energy tax.” Still the traditionally powerful Energy and Committee is where most energy and climate bills are birthed on the House side.

Though his organization catalogs Waxman as too ideological, Jenkins admits that Republicans for Environmental Protection doesn’t see much hope for any significant environmental legislation advancing in the committee if the GOP assumes majority power after the midterm election.

As it stands now, the GOP battle for leadership would likely boil down to a contest between Joe Barton of Texas and Fred Upton of Michigan because of their seniority. Neither voted for the Waxman-Markey bill. To qualify for committee leadership, Barton is seeking an exemption from the Republican-imposed limit of three consecutive terms at the helm.

“The smart money would be on Upton,” Jenkins said, adding that the GOP soured on Barton after he apologized to BP chief executive Tony Hayward during the height of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “He embarrassed the party. And with the rebuke that came after that, he came close to getting pulled from his leadership position then.”

However, Jenkins didn’t rave about Upton either. He would rather see a centrist and skilled negotiator such as Mary Bono Mack, one of eight House Republicans to support Waxman-Markey, elevated to committee leadership.

“Upton is more accommodating and open-minded, but he’s more of a follower,” Jenkins said. “He has behaved more like a puppet to Barton. We haven’t seen him step out on his own and prove himself on an issue.”

Both Jenkins and Hamilton said they were deeply disturbed to read a report in Politico earlier this month about Barton, Upton and other Republican committee members meeting with lobbyists from the energy and telecommunications fields at the National Republican Club.

This is just one indicator, the Sierra Club’s Hamilton predicted, that a Republican-led committee will revert to the days of the Bush administration.

“It’ll be back to the same old ‘give oil, gas and nuclear every advantage we can give to them and maybe sprinkle a little renewable in there’ and somehow make a plausible claim at balance,” Hamilton said.

“That’s a big concern for us,” Jenkins said, adding that this sort of behavior led to a widespread public perception in 2006 that the Republicans were the party of special interests, adversely affecting their ability to act in best interests in of the American public. “It’s reminiscent of vice president Dick Cheney back in 2000 and 2001 when he worked out an energy plan with industry but nobody else got a seat at the table.”

To advance serious environmental legislation, Jenkins said, the Republican Party needs to assign representatives who are more open-minded and less fossil fuel-centric to the committee.

“But instead they assign these extremists and we get the worst possible people in positions of power,” he concluded. “The party needs to stop doing that. They make the Republican party look like they are out of the mainstream.”