Politics: How Much Did Cap-and-Trade Hurt the Democrats? Not As Much As You Think

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[Update 1:10 PM]: Ryan Cunningham of Glover Park Group wrote to me to note that by the numbers, Democrats who voted against cap-and-trade were three times more likely to lose then those who voted for it. That’s a striking number, though most of the anti-cap Democrats who lost were Blue Dogs representing generally conservative districts—and the Blue Dogs as a whole were especially hammered in this election, with half the caucus sent packing. The problem is that cap-and-trade—and climate action more generally—is already a pretty easy sell on the blue coasts. (See California’s repudiation of Prop 23.) But if cap-and-trade—or any climate action—is going to become law nationally, it’s going to need some support in more conservative parts of the country, in the Midwest and the South. That support is not there right now. Voting against Waxman-Markey wasn’t enough to save those vulnerable Democrats in conservative areas—but that hardly translates into approval for a carbon cap.

[Update 3:56 PM]: Just to clarify, the bit above about the Blue Dogs and Democrats in conservative districts comes from my own analysis, not Ryan Cunningham’s—he just sent me the numerical breakdown on who voted for Waxman-Markey versus wins and losses, making the case that you can’t pin the blame for Democratic losses on that bill. Which, as the headline for the post shows, I agree with.

Original post: Tom Perriello was always going to have a tough re-election fight. The freshman Democrat was an unlikely winner in 2008, when he won a closely contested race in Virginia’s Fifth District—a generally conservative area that includes Charlottesville—and he was down in the polls for much of the campaign. Perriello fought hard—with the help of prominent Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who made a last-minute swing through the’s district—but it wasn’t enough, as the incumbent lost 51-47 to Republican State Senator Robert Hurt.

On a night that was a historic disaster for Democrats—the party lost at least 60 seats in the House, giving control to the resurgent Republicans—one loss might not stand out. But Perriello was an unapologetic supporter of the carbon cap-and-trade bill that narrowly passed in the House a year and a half ago (before dying in the Senate), and environmental groups in particular rallied to his support, pouring money into his campaign.

Nor was Perriello the only Democrat who supported cap-and-trade to go down in defeat last night. Over two dozen Democratic lawmakers who supported a carbon cap were beaten by Republican challengers, including senior legislators like Rick Boucher of western Virginia,  14-term veteran and firm friend of the coal industry. Boucher was a key broker for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, softening up the legislation to make it palatable for conservative Democrats in the Midwest and South; without his efforts, the bill would have almost certainly died in the House. But even though Boucher said he voted in favor of the bill because he saw it as the best way to keep the coal industry growing, he lost in a shocker to Republican Morgan Griffiths in a campaign dominated by coal. There’s little doubt Boucher’s vote came back to haunt him:

“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 how big a factor was cap-and-trade on election night? In reality, not all that much. It’s worth noting that no Republican who voted in favor of cap-and-trade lost their reelection battles last night (although that’s admittedly a small sample size, as only 8 Republicans supported the bill, and one of them—Delaware’s Mike Castle—lost in a primary election to a more conservative opponent). Even in the midst of a Republican tsunami, a few Democrats who supported a carbon cap still managed close victories, including Brad Miller of North Carolina and John Yarmuth of Kentucky—two conservative leaning states. “I’m not saying cap-and-trade wasn’t an issue,” says Cathy Duvall, the political director for the Sierra Club. “But there were people who voted for it who lost and people who voted against it who lost, in tough districts and in more traditional districts.”
Indeed, aside from a few districts where climate change and energy was high on the agenda—like Rick Boucher’s coal-mining land—Americans voters weren’t really focused on environmental issues. This was a wave election, an expression of volcanic anger on the part of the public, and what House and Senate Democrats did or didn’t do on climate and energy likely made very little difference to the overall tide. “There was an inchoate sense of anger, nd the electorate was not really responding to any one issue in particular,” says Matt Bennett, vice-president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. Cap-and-trade and climate change might have been part of that narrative, but likely not a big part.
One exception was California, where voters—backed by a well-financed campaign by environmental groups and clean-energy entrepreneurs—strongly rejected Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would have all but repealed the state’s global warming law. For greens who watched the electoral map turn red through the night, the defeat of Prop 23 was one piece of consolation. (Although even that victory was mixed—Californians also voted in favor of Prop 26, which will require a 2/3 supermajority vote for state and local governments to raise fees. That could have serious implications for the financing of California’s environmental initiatives—including the global warming law.) “The vote on Prop 23 was a strong affirmation in favor of action on climate change,” says Trip Van Noppen, president of the green group Earthjustice.
So what’s left? Cap-and-trade may not have played a large role in the Democrats’ defeat, but with the Republicans in firm control of the House and the Senate nearly split, any chance at carbon pricing would seem to be dead for at least the next two years. Any action on much-needed energy reform will require bipartisan support, but the incoming Republicans have said little about what they actually favor on energy or climate, just what they’re against. “The newly-elected members of the Republican leadership haven’t talked at all about energy policy,” says Joshua Freed, who directs the Clean Energy Program at Third Way. “They haven’t shown much interest in it.”
There’s no shortage of think tanks offer “post-partisan” solutions for energy reform. But aside from ever more aid for nuclear power plants, and small programs on energy efficiency that no one can really oppose, there’s no obvious ares for bipartisan cooperation on energy—let alone climate change, which is far more toxic politically. I’d love to see a big increase in the miniscule budget for energy research, but as Andrew Revkin points out over at Dot Earth, we’re likely to see the opposite—conservative cutting science research budgets altogether or shifting the money towards more politically popular areas, like defense and medical research. Meanwhile China will keep eating our lunch on clean energy.
What we need are politicians willing to make the tough—and often unpopular—decisions that can put the U.S. back in the game on energy. Ironically, what we need are politicians like Tom Perriello, who never ran away from his vote on cap-and-trade, even though he knew it might cost him a chance at reelection, as Obama himself said in a speech shortly before the election:
[Perriello] did not go to Washington to do what was easy, to do what was popular. He went to do what was right. And now the lobbyists and the special interests are going after him. We always say we want integrity from our elected officials. And you know what, this is a test case right here in Charlottesville because this man has integrity.
I had my doubts about the effectiveness of the Waxman-Markey bill, but I definitely admired Perriello’s willingness to stick to his principles. Red or blue, I think we all lose out when we lose someone like him—and his loss doesn’t bode well for future energy policy.