New Hampshire Candidates Quiet on Climate and Clean Energy

Invited to a carbon forum in Manchester, candidates decline to attend

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MANCHESTER, N.H.—What if you spent months organizing a forum to allow voters to quiz their congressional candidates directly about climate legislation, energy policy and green jobs—and none of the six invited candidates bothered to show up?

If you’re chairman of the New Hampshire Carbon Action Alliance, you don’t punt. Instead, you forge ahead with Plan B.

“We were confident that at the very least we could get one or two candidates to show up,” a disappointed but resilient Farrell Seiler told SolveClimate News in a post-forum interview. “I was after them and after them up until the last minute. Our goal was to let them know that these topics matter. My concern is that candidates aren’t paying attention to these vital environmental issues.”

Even just one candidate for Congress or the U.S. Senate appearing would have led to an overflow crowd at the Wednesday gathering, Seiler emphasized.

As it was, however, about 30 New Englanders trekked to a downtown hotel in Manchester—the Granite State’s largest city—to hear a revised forum agenda that featured New Hampshire-centric talks about public perceptions of climate change, threats posed by global warming and the status of renewable energy.

But lack of candidate turnout at an environmental debate is evidently par for the campaign course nationwide in an election year when the “tea party” movement has incumbents on edge, conservative voters are energized, Republicans are benefitting from oodles of advertising dollars from undisclosed sources and a Democrat can barely utter the phrase “cap and trade” without being drowned out with a counter chant of “cap and tax.”

Candidates are treading gingerly during these tricky times, says Andy Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, where he directs the UNH Survey Center.

“Democrats are trying to appear as moderate as possible, so that’s why they want to stay away from an environmental forum,” Smith said in an interview. “On the Republican side, they’re not going to do anything to alienate voters who are really motivated. Conservative Republicans are really animated this year.

“Environmental issues can work in a year when there are no economic issues,” he continued. “Otherwise, they are seen as boutique issues. And that’s not unique to New Hampshire. When the economy is bad, you have to talk about what you’re going to do about jobs.”

Climate Denier Leading N.H. Senate Race

Any other year, an energy-issues forum would be a natural fit for Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes. Not only did he vote “yes” for the American Clean Energy and Security Act that the House approved in 2009 but his Web site lays out a succinct six-page plan explaining how clean energy technology can create jobs in New Hampshire and nationwide.

The document praises the state’s renewable electricity standard of 23.8 percent by 2025 and calls for a national RES. In addition, the white paper details not only how the country can invest in clean energy entrepreneurship and spur energy efficiency, but also spells out which programs to cut to provide the funding.  

But Hodes is up against a formidable challenger, Republican Kelly Ayotte, in his attempt to fill the seat being vacated by the popular three-term GOP Sen. Judd Gregg.

The nonpartisan and independent Cook Political Report has the Senate race leaning Republican. Most political handicappers give the nod to former state attorney general Ayotte—one local poll shows she has a 15-point lead—and word on the street is that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pulled its funding for Hodes.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin christened Ayotte a “Granite Grizzly” when endorsing her before she pulled out a victory in the seven-way New Hampshire primary Sept. 14.

Ayotte opposes cap-and-trade legislation as a “tax on Granite State families at a time when they can afford it least” and is on the record as a denier of man-made climate change—even when local scientists have pointed to evidence of global warming and the impact on New Hampshire’s skiing, maple sugaring and tourism industries.

Sea level is expected to rise two to three feet by the end of this century, according to the New Hampshire Climate Action Plan. The state has had 100-year floods in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and records show ice on Lakes Sunapee and Winnipesaukee is melting earlier. Researchers are also worried that climate change will exacerbate threats that already compromise the long-term health of the Great Bay Estuary.

Hodes is clearly reluctant to challenge Ayotte’s climate beliefs and her lack of an energy plan. Instead, statewide headlines now focus on her alleged ethical lapses as attorney general.

“There’s no potential benefit for candidates of either party to push this issue right now,” Smith said about climate change. “If Wall Street is run on greed, then politics is run on fear.”

Another Waxman-Markey Supporter Silent on Vote

In the 1st Congressional District, second-term incumbent Carol Shea-Porter has evidently chosen not to capitalize on a recent poll indicating that clean energy legislation resonates with a majority of her constituents in the eastern portion of the state.

The usually-outspoken Democrat skipped the Manchester forum—the city is in her district—opting not to explain how her vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act could create green jobs, reduce reliance on foreign oil, curb greenhouse gases and hold corporate polluters accountable.

October surveys by Public Policy Polling for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund indicate that voters are more likely to support candidates willing to stand up for an energy bill that slices heat-trapping gases. The polls were conducted in 23 competitive Congressional districts where candidates supported the clean energy bill co-authored by Democratic Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California.

“If you go to voters now and talk about your support for Waxman-Markey, you’re making it a lot easier for your opponent to attack it,” Smith said. “In elections, logic and reasoned debate aren’t exactly what count. Politics trumps policy every time.”

The Cook Political Report categorizes the race between Shea-Porter and her GOP opponent Frank Guinta as “leans Republican” and at least one poll has the Democrat behind by 12 points. Guinta is the former mayor of Manchester.

Peter Bearse did attend the Carbon Action Alliance forum in Manchester. If he hadn’t lost to Guinta in the Republican primary, he said in an interview he would’ve participated as a candidate. The economist had the room in stitches when he apologized for the GOP “being hijacked by a bunch of nudniks” on the global warming front.

“On climate, most Republicans are acting like ostriches sticking their heads in the sand,” he said, adding that his suggestion a few years ago that the state GOP add a climate change plank to its platform “landed with a resounding thud.”

Democrat Has a Chance in Open Congressional District

The Cook Political Report is calling the contest to fill the seat in the sprawling 2nd Congressional District that Hodes is departing as a toss-up but in-state prognosticators say that Democrat Ann McClane Kuster has the upper hand.

She is squaring off against the “quasi-incumbent” Charlie Bass, who represented the area for 12 years before losing to Hodes in 2006. Bass, a backer of biofuels and renewables who has a green streak, is enmeshed in a bit of an ethical pickle over allegations he lobbied the Bush administration on behalf of a wood pellet company where he’s a stockholder.

In her campaign literature, Kuster spells out plans for passing comprehensive energy legislation, boosting investments in clean energy research and development, supporting clean energy manufacturing jobs and cutting subsidies to oil companies.

The League of Conservation Voters has endorsed Kuster, Hodes and Shea-Porter.   

“Kuster has the progressive Democrats excited and she’s raised more money than any other candidate,” Smith said about the attorney and public policy advocate. “Bass is in trouble and could lose because his constituents are remembering him as being a Republican in name only.

“If you’re a Republican talking about environmental issues, you’ll risk being seen as a Republican in name only and not conservative enough in a year in which conservatives are supposed to do well.”

Under Two Weeks to Go

Even though New Hampshire is now home to slightly more Democrats than Republicans—a relatively recent change for a former GOP stronghold—the Oct. 20 version of the WMUR/UNH New Hampshire Election Poll coordinated by Smith indicates that an enthusiasm gap among Democrats will give the GOP an advantage Nov. 2.

Staring into what he calls his “slightly cloudy but slowly clearing” crystal ball, Smith is predicting victories for two Republicans, Ayotte in the Senate and Guinta in the House, and one Democrat, Kuster in the House.

Seiler, who organized Wednesday’s forum, is less than satisfied with Smith’s calls on Ayotte and Guinta. The independent voter admits that he and his fellow Carbon Action Alliance members joke about already pondering the possibilities for 2012. That shouldn’t be too alarming in a state that exists in perpetual campaign mode.

The next presidential primary, after all, is only 15 or so months away. But who’s counting?