A Referendum on Climate Action?

| Wed Nov. 3, 2010 10:58 AM PDT

Heading into the election, much attention focused on the votes that House members took on specific pieces of legislation—with the voted on health care reform and the climate legislation getting the bulk of it.

But it turns out that the June 2009 vote on the Waxman-Markey bill wasn't actually a very good predictor of how Democrats would fare on Tuesday (despite what the "Day of Reckoning" headline over at Politico would indicate). A number of Democrats who supported the bill were defeated last night; thirty-four of the 211 Democrats who voted for the bill lost their reelection bid. But the vulnerable Democrats who voted against the bill actually fared worse proportionally—27 of the 43 who opposed it lost last night.

Thus, how these Democrats fared didn't really mirror their vote on the bill at all. Vulnerable Democrats in red districts didn't do well, period, and it was for reasons including but not limited to the climate vote. Take a look at Virginia, a good study in the vote. There you had Tom Perriello in Virginia's fifth district, a progressive in a red area who voted for the bill. He lost his bid for a second term to Republican Robert Hurt by a four-point margin. Environmental groups spent quite a bit his behalf, but he faced a tough race no matter what.

Then there's 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who suffered a major upset in the ninth district. His Republican challenger Morgan Griffith beat him 51 percent to 46 percent. Boucher played a major role in shaping the climate and energy bill, pledging to ensure that "the future of coal will be intact." That included $60 billion in support for the coal industry. Nevertheless, his opponent still cast him as a foe of coal, and political observers are now pegging the vote as the key reason for his loss. "I don't think there's any question about it, cap-and-trade was the issue in the campaign," Andy Wright, a former Boucher chief of staff, told Politico. "If Rick had voted no, he wouldn't have had a serious contest."

But then you have Glenn Nye, a Democrat in Virginia's second district, who voted against Waxman-Markey, as well as health care reform. He lost by a 10-point margin last night. Clearly, distancing himself from Democrats and their policy priorities didn't help him out.

On the flip side, the tiny group of Republicans that voted for the Waxman-Markey bill did very well last night. All five who were up for reelection won, despite a lot of "cap and traitors" rhetoric in the weeks following the vote. Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who also voted for the bill, won his Senate race. John McHugh of New York left the House to serve as the Secretary of the Army. Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware was the other "yes" vote among House Republicans, but he made a run for Senate this year and lost his primary bid to Christine O'Donnell.

It's safe to say that the Democratic slaughter last night probably means nothing will happen in the House on climate over the next two years. Environmental groups are trying to strike a positive tone, however, guessing that the new Republican majority will take this as a mandate and overreach on the issue, hurting themselves in the long run. Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund said in an email late last night:

As they did after the 1994 elections, polluters will probably push the new Congress to overreach and roll back environmental protections. But that would backfire today just as it has backfired then. The real appetite in the new Congress will be for bipartisan, bite-sized pieces of energy policy that protect our environment and grow our economy.

I wouldn't go that far; I predict gridlock or apathy on the issue in the House. But I would say that last night's results really don't say all that much about the vote on last year's climate bill in particular.

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