I would note that this is mostly a messaging battle right now. Given that it is seemingly unlikely a bill would be enacted into law until 2010 (see Sen. Reid: “Health care is easier than this global warming stuff.” Las Vegas odds on bill in 2009 now longer shot than Mine That Bird.), it is very unlikely the cap would start until 2013, and I suspect the cap will be set too high — given the recent drop in emissions from the deep recession and renewable energy standards — so I doubt there will be a semi-serious carbon price (i.e. >$10/ton) until post 2015. In short, people will not be seeing their energy prices rise for many election cycles, so the other side will have to campaign against them mostly on lies, not reality, but what else is new?
Here are the swing members (and yes, a few of them are probably not persuadable, but many are, I think, especially the 8 Dems profiled at the end):
Hmm. Not a comment that inspires much optimism about his vote. How about “If I’ve got opposition, the way I respond to that charge is I was looking out for the best interest of my constituents. And their children. And their grandchildren. And of course I don’t want San Antonio turned into a Dust Bowl.”
An E&E analysis of the districts from which those moderates hail clearly shows that in many instances the political future of the lawmakers hangs on who wins the message war over climate change and, perhaps even more importantly, the actual impact of the bill years down the line.
One of the difficulties with gauging the public’s potential reaction to a vote on climate change legislation is that most voters simply know very little about the issue and the bill.
“It’s not something that resonates deeply in the public,” said Mike Digby, chair of the political science department at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga., represented by Rep. John Barrow (D). “They’re just not fully aware of it yet. Once that gets closer to a vote, I’d guess that stuff is really going to hit the fan, and public opinion could crystallize really quickly.”
Several fence-sitters represent districts where both messages could resonate — areas that center around manufacturing where a climate bill would either bring more jobs and revive industry or send jobs fleeing oversees. And even though many of them prevailed by large margins in their last election, several come from districts that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried in last fall’s presidential race or where Republicans held the seat in the recent past.
Interest groups on both sides of the policy debate have launched ad campaigns targeted specifically at moderate Democrats. On the left, it means “green jobs” — the same message Barack Obama used during his presidential campaign to sell voters on his economic and energy agenda. On the right, it means focusing on the economic costs of the bill and raising the specter that it would amount to a new “tax” — a line of attack that has been a winner for Republicans on the campaign trail for decades.
Does cap and trade matter at the polls?
Until last year, it was difficult to find a recent campaign that centered around energy policy or even races where it was a top-tier issue. As a result, many of the Energy and Commerce Committee members have never been involved in campaigns where energy — and certainly climate change — were the deciding factors in an election.
As such, even advocates of cap-and-trade legislation say it is not surprising that some members are treading lightly, having little idea of how the public will respond to their proposals.
“This is a new issue to a lot of people. It’s very complicated,” said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). “Everyone comes at it with a sense of, if not unease, wanting to know more before they make a commitment. It’s not a surprise. It’s not a surprise we are where we are, where people are still wrapping their minds around this.”
Others also say moderate Democrats should look to Obama — who seemingly used the message successfully in the campaign — to provide political cover.
“My guess is there’ll be other issues that’ll be more important to most of those campaigns,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House aide now working as spokesman for the National Commission on Energy Policy. “But at a certain point, you have to have the courage of conviction on your support for the president’s overall programs.”
One thing is for certain: Republicans in Washington believe that a vote for climate change could be politically detrimental for some moderate Democrats and have already attacked them for potentially supporting legislation that will raise costs on consumers.
Below is an E&E rundown of eight Democrats who are on the fence on the climate change bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee and whose districts are competitive enough that their vote may play a key role in their re-election bids. Absent any surprise GOP defections, sponsors of the bill can lose six Democratic members and still pass the bill.
Charlie Melancon (Louisiana’s 3rd District)
If any Democratic Energy and Commerce Committee member is likely to be in the GOP’s sights, it is Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon. The third-term congressman from the southern portion of the state is the only Democrat left in Louisiana’s congressional delegation, and Republicans are almost certain to attempt a strong challenge against him next year.
Melancon was unopposed in 2008, but his district went overwhelmingly — 61 percent — for McCain in the presidential race. The Louisiana 3rd District, which covers much of the state’s coastline, is a major hub for the domestic oil and gas industry, and its refineries, offshore facilities and other infrastructure are a major district employer.
In 2006, a Democratic-leaning year, Melancon won with 55 percent of the vote and in 2004 he won a narrow runoff over the son of former Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Billy Tauzin, with 50.2 percent of the vote. At least one Republican — state Rep. Nickie Monica — has expressed an interest in challenging Melancon.
Additionally, Melancon appears to harbor some statewide ambitions — he was rumored as both a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2007 and as a challenger to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) in 2010. He declined to enter both of those races but certainly support for climate change legislation — especially if it is seen as damaging to the state’s oil and gas industry — would be a negative in a state that has increasingly trended Republican.
Baron Hill (Indiana’s 9th District)
Rep. Baron Hill is another Democrat that is never far from political danger, having already lost one congressional election as an incumbent.
Hill’s district, which covers the southeastern corner of Indiana, has seen a number of fierce battles in recent years between Hill and former Republican congressman Mike Sodrel. In 2004, Sodrel narrowly defeated Hill, ousting the then-third term Democrat. Two years later Hill won back his seat from Sodrel by half a percentage point.
In 2008, Hill actually had his easiest political win of his career, again beating Sodrel but this time with 57 percent of the vote.
Still, that easy win is not necessarily a sign of things to come as Hill triumphed in a Democratic-friendly year and as Obama carried the state — the first time a Democrat had won Indiana since 1964. Even so, McCain narrowly edged Obama in Hill’s district.
Already, several Republicans have expressed an interest in challenging Hill in 2010, though Sodrel is not one of them. And like Melancon, Hill may have statewide ambition: Indiana blogs and news outlets have reported that Hill is interested in running for Indiana governor in 2010. In a state that leans significantly on manufacturing and on coal for electricity generation, a vote on cap and trade could certainly have major implications in a statewide election.
Mike Ross (Arkansas’ 4th District)
Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross is one of several Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats who has skated through to easy election victories in recent years but who also sits in a district that could easily go Republican under the right circumstances.
In 2008, Ross garnered 86 percent of the vote, running against a Green Party candidate. At the same time, McCain won the district by a large margin and the district was essentially evenly split between President George W. Bush and the Democratic candidates in 2000 and 2004.
Ross first won the seat in 2000 by 2 percentage points, defeating an incumbent Republican. He won a rematch again in 2002 and has not seen a close contest since. Republicans, however, have repeatedly pegged the seat as a potential target, though so far they have simply not been able to find a serious challenger.
Jim Matheson (Utah’s 2nd District)
Rep. Jim Matheson appears to have built up significant goodwill and political support from his district but also represents an area that — at least on paper — favors Republicans.
Matheson won a fifth term last year by 19 percentage points, following a similar win by a margin of 22 percent in 2006. But Matheson’s district also went for McCain by a similarly lopsided margin.
Utah’s 2nd District was actually crafted specifically for a Republican candidate, but Matheson won in 2000 by a relatively narrow margin and held on to the seat by less than 2,000 votes in 2002.
The Democratic moderate said recently that constituents are getting bombarded with cable TV ads urging them to contact their congressman and urge him to vote one way or another.
Asked how the commercials were influencing his decisions, Matheson replied, “The reality is for my constituents, I represent 900,000 people, that’s a lot of different points of view. On this issue, where there are a lot of complexities that aren’t being discussed in those message points from various interest groups back home, my constituents want me to get into the details and look at the complexities and all these specifics and figure out what all this means.”
But Matheson also said he was not so sure his district was ready to embrace the draft legislation. “I don’t know if I want to speak for them as a group,” Matheson said. “There’s genuine concern about this is an issue we ought to look at.”
John Barrow (Georgia’s 12th District)
Few members of Congress — much less of the Energy and Commerce Committee — have been in the Republican Party’s sights in recent years as consistently as Georgia’s John Barrow.
Rep. Barrow won his district, which covers August, Savannah and a slew of counties in between, in 2004 by narrowly defeating incumbent Rep. Max Burns. Two years later Barrow again fended off a challenge from Burns by less than 1,000 votes.
Things were a little easier for Barrow last year as he won the district with 66 percent of the vote against an underfunded challenger, with President Obama also carrying the district with 54 percent of the vote. On paper, the district appears to lean slightly toward the Democrats, but by a narrow enough margin that most future races figure to be competitive.
Republicans are again promising to make Barrow a target in 2010 and two challengers have already entered the race.
Barrow’s GOP opponent in the 2008 campaign — who is not running in 2010 — said this week that he views the climate vote as a potentially difficult political issue for the incumbent. “A lot of it depends on the public relations battle on this and what the public believes,” said John Stone, who fell to Barrow by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Stone now works as press secretary to Rep. John Carter (R-Texas).
“It’d be a very damaging vote,” Stone said. “To come back and raise prices on energy and raise prices on farming the way it would, it’d be a real insult to the working people of the district. … This could very well be a defining issue for 2010 and for 2012.”
Zack Space (Ohio’s 18th District)
Perhaps no other member represents the political difficulty associated with a climate change vote as much as sophomore Rep. Zack Space of Ohio.
Space took over a Republican-leaning district previously held by embattled Rep. Bob Ney (R) in 2006, capturing 62 percent of the vote against a GOP candidate who was tied to Ney. Upon arriving in Washington, Space was quickly viewed as one of the new faces of the Democrats’ majority in no small part because he seemingly rode a wave of discontent with the Republican leadership in Washington.
Last year, Space won re-election with 60 percent of the vote. But Space’s district is still far from safe for Democrats — McCain carried it by 8 percent — and he remains a major target for Republicans.
Space seemingly recognizes his potential vulnerability, having raised $421,000 for his re-election bid in the first three months of 2009 with a large chunk of that coming from electric utilities and other energy industry groups. Indeed, coal jobs are a major economic engine in the district and any vote that is seen as damaging to the industry could certain be damaging for his re-election prospects.
But Space’s district has also been targeted by interest groups on the left with ads promising that climate legislation could spur economic development and help revive some of the industries in the area.
Bart Stupak (Michigan’s 1st District)
Rep. Bart Stupak has seen few serious political challenges, but Republicans are clearly showing signs of going after the nine-term Democrat in future elections and it is certainly possible that a Republican could win here.
Stupak’s district covers Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and has a clear conservative streak on social issues. George Bush carried the district twice, and Obama won the district by 2 percentage points — even though Obama won the state by 16 percentage points.
At the moment, it is unclear if Stupak, the chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, will have a serious challenger in 2010. The National Republican Congressional Committee has sent out press releases targeting the Democrat and asking if he intends to support a “national energy tax that could hurt middle-class families and cost American jobs.”
Bart Gordon (Tennessee’s 6th District)
Rep. Bart Gordon actually represents a district that was once held by former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore. But that certainly does not mean that the 13-term congressman and chairman of the House Science Committee is safe from future political challenges — after all, Gore was unable to carry the state in the 2000 presidential election.
The 6th District, has leaned increasingly Republican in recent years — McCain won here by 25 points, even exceeding the 20-point margin for Bush in 2004.
And the district, which covers areas surrounding Nashville, relies heavily on auto manufacturing for its jobs — an industry that could certainly see some effects from sweeping energy legislation.
It remains to be seen if the one Republican currently in the race — retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Dave Evans — can mount a serious challenge to Gordon, but the GOP certainly views the district as a potential pick up opportunity.
More than just 2010
The political calculus for many members extends beyond next year, as future ambitions, the changing nature of the districts and constituent backlash may all play a factor in their decision-making.
Some members such Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and Gonzalez of Texas are in districts where it is hard to see them losing to a Republican anytime soon. But they have also built much of their political identity on serving as advocates for low-income voters, which represent a large portion of their base.
“I think I can explain my position to the people I represent. I’m getting a lot of pressure from both ends. And the opposition is coming from both the left and the right,” Butterfield said this week. “I think I’ve got to look at the merits of this and decide what’s best not only for my constituents, but for the American people.”
Other members — such as Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) — also do not appear to be in any immediate political danger, but they have spent decades advocating for industries that are the centerpiece of their districts and could certainly be affected by climate change legislation.
Doyle said this week that any effort to sell the legislation to his constituents must include specifics on just what the legislation will mean to the country’s economic picture and his constituents. “Eventually we have to get out and explain and sell this to the American people,” he said. “This needs to have grassroots support, and we need bipartisan support too.”
The climate change vote could also have dramatic political ramifications well beyond 2010, as the legislation would not even kick in until 2011 and campaigns certainly are not shy about using old votes against incumbents. That could be especially daunting given that redistricting is just around the corner and some members who are in safe districts today could find themselves in hot water two years from now, having to explain their votes to a whole new batch of constituents.
Again, hard to see how constituent energy bills would go up noticeably until 2020ish. More on this later.