Green gains

Voters have finally made the environment an election issue, kicking polluters like Richard Pombo to the curb.

Topics: 2006 Elections, Environment,

Fist pumping, chest thumping and hallelujahs abounded this week at a press conference of top environmental strategists responding to the results of the Nov. 7 elections, which ushered in a Democratic Congress after 12 years of near-total GOP control.

“Let me be clear: The environment won last night!” Sierra Club political director Cathy Duvall exclaimed the next day. “Voters elected a greener U.S. House, a greener U.S. Senate, greener U.S. governors, and they gave a green light to a new energy future.”

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said, “This is the first election I can remember in U.S. history that has put such a specific focus on a top-priority environmental issue, which this year has been a clean-energy future.”

There’s no question that the environment played a central role in some high-profile victories. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — one of the few Republicans with anything to smile about on Tuesday — got a boost from signing into law the nation’s first mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions — and then coasted to victory over Democratic challenger Phil Angelides. “There’s certainly a case to be made that he owes his win to climate change,” said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

Another Californian with decidedly less star power, Jerry McNerney (a Democrat), also has the environment to thank for his stunning victory over House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo (a Republican), who for 14 years represented the Golden State’s 11th Congressional District and rose to become one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. A no-name wind-energy engineer, McNerney made clean energy his signature issue and painted himself a zealous eco-warrior against the backdrop of Pombo’s relentless efforts to drill in sensitive natural areas, butcher the Endangered Species Act and open millions of acres of public lands to development. McNerney was helped mightily along the way by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, which together poured more than $1.2 million into the race.

The new Democratic senator-elect from Montana, Jon Tester, beat out Republican environmental foe Conrad Burns with a similarly enthusiastic environmental platform. An organic farmer turned state senator, Tester centered much of his TV advertising on his plans to make Montana a stronghold of the new energy economy. As president of the state Senate, he pushed through a 2005 law requiring utilities in Montana to derive 15 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2015.

This same message also cropped up during the campaign of Missouri’s new Democratic senator-elect, Claire McCaskill, who ousted Republican Jim Talent, an avid proponent of oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And it was a theme in the gubernatorial races of Democrat Bill Ritter in Colorado, who beat out his drilling-happy Republican opponent Bob Beauprez, and Democrat Ted Strickland in Ohio, who walloped Republican Ken Blackwell with a campaign that included a promise to spend roughly $250 million on next-gen alternative-energy projects.

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Of the nine candidates the LCV named to its list of “Environmental Champions,” eight were reelected. And of the 13 active candidates on the LCV’s “Dirty Dozen” list (someone’s got a bit of a counting problem), “we beat nine of them,” said the league’s Karpinski.

Said Sierra Club’s Duvall, “The striking thing isn’t just that the energy/environment issue played a decisive role in these races, it’s that it was used to bring an optimistic, inspirational message to an election year marked by lots of negative campaigning.”

But some political analysts believe environmentalists are going overboard with their optimistic claims of political relevance. “I really don’t think that energy or the environment played a defining role in this election,” Amy Walter, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report, told Muckraker. “It was ultimately a referendum on the president, the president’s party and the president’s war. It was a vote against the status quo rather than a vote for certain future goals. Does it mean that Democrats gave us a convincing blueprint for what they want to do with energy? No. Does it mean voters were saying we see a bright future in clean energy? No.”

Ana Unruh Cohen of the Center for American Progress also thinks “it’s a stretch to pin this election directly on environmental issues.”

Cohen noted, however, that one of the most common themes among Democratic campaigns was eliminating subsidies for Big Oil. “Democrats were looking to speak to middle-class voters, and one of the best ways of spotlighting Republicans’ favorable treatment of the wealthy is tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of America and oil subsidies for companies making record profits,” she said. She also pointed to a recent Pew Research Center poll that found voters connecting the dots between oil use and national security; 67 percent said decreasing America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East is a very important step in preventing terrorism. Said Cohen, “The environment was relevant in this election to the extent that it is inextricably connected to the issues that concerned voters most — national security and the economy.”

Whether or not environmentalists can legitimately take credit for any outcomes of the 2006 election, they have good reason to believe that the new political landscape will offer them some victories going forward. Soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, has named energy independence as one of her top priorities for the 110th Congress, along with repealing subsidies for oil companies and pushing energy efficiency and alternative fuels. President Bush — perhaps trying to keep from getting steamrolled — is now trying to seize the initiative on energy independence himself.

Said Karpinski, “Any way you slice it, we’re looking at a tremendous growth of power among environmentally sympathetic leaders.”

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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