Climate on the Campaign Trail: 5 Races to Watch

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From cap-and-trade vs. "cap-and-tax" to bickering over the science behind global warming, climate and energy issues are a common theme in this year's midterm election campaigns. Many lawmakers are being forced to defend their votes for the House's cap-and-trade bill last summer, while gubernatorial candidates are being quizzed on whether they'd team with other states to reduce emissions.

Here's a preview of five races in which environmental issues are playing a leading role:

1. California Governor. California is the state to watch from a climate and environmental perspective, with a Senate contest, ballot initiative, and House races all hitting on related issues. The governor's race, however, is the locus of the madness. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate, is butting heads with Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown over California's landmark climate legislation.

In 2006, the state passed AB 32, a law that, among other things, establishes a cap-and-trade market in California starting in 2012. An oil-industry-backed proposition to suspend the law made its way onto this year's ballot, threatening to undo the most aggressive climate law in the country. Brown opposes the proposition, and Whitman recently said she was leaning toward voting against it as well. She has vowed, however, to suspend the AB 32 cap-and-trade law for a year her first day in office. By proxy, she would also suspend California's participation in the Western Climate Initiative's regional carbon trading system, which is scheduled to begin in 2012.

AB 32 has well-organized support from environmental groups, Silicon Valley, and current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "We're going to fight like crazy to make sure AB 32 is implemented," said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund. "We think it's a no-brainer. We've known about that one for quite a long time, so we're quite organized." On the other side, though, is an industry campaign with bottomless pockets.

California has long served as a bellwether for climate action, so the outcome of this election will have a significant symbolic impact on legislation at both the state and federal levels.

2. Massachusetts Governor. Ten states currently participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative's (RGGI) cap-and-trade system for power plants, the Northeast's verison of the Western Climate Initiative. In 2005, then-Gov. Mitt Romney pulled Massachusetts out at the last moment, but when current Gov. Deval Patrick assumed office in 2008, he revived the state's participation.

Recent polls show Patrick losing his edge over Republican opponent Charlie Baker; a Rasmussen survey from late July shows him leading by just six points. Unlike some of his more outspoken conservative peers, Baker has tiptoed around the science of global warming, but he has expressed reservations about RGGI. A campaign spokeswoman told Politico that "Charlie is committed to undertaking a review of all of the laws and regulations in Massachusetts that make us less competitive and thwart job creation, and RGGI is certainly something that needs to be looked at."

The candidates are also split on the controversial Cape Wind project in the Nantucket Sound. Patrick has been a strong proponent of the project, claiming it will make Massachusetts a leader in clean energy and create up to 1,000 new jobs. Baker, however, worries it will raise energy prices and suck up subsidies.

3. Delaware Senate. Republican Rep. Mike Castle is vying for Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat. He's expected to beat a Tea Party challenger in the Republican primary, and he also leads Democratic candidate Chris Coons, though Coons managed to narrow that lead to 11 points in July.

Environmentalists are keeping a close eye on the race because Castle is one of the eight Republicans who voted for the House's cap-and-trade bill last year. Taylor-Miesle calls Castle "a great environmentalist" and hopes that, if elected, he would cooperate with Democrats on a climate bill. "It's really a no-lose situation for us," Taylor-Miesle said. She labeled Coons a "nice guy who would be a wonderful senator" and likely to support a climate bill--but, party allegiances aside, "Mike Castle's done a lot of wonderful work and we do really need Republican leadership."

An extra reason to watch the race is that whoever wins will be seated immediately after the November election, to fill Biden's seat. This will provide an extra vote for the lame duck session, which some environmentalists are hoping results in a climate vote. While it is unlikely that the Senate will take up a comprehensive climate bill in the lame duck, and even more unlikely that a freshly elected Republican would vote against his party on such a controversial issue, this timing lends some urgency to the contest.

4. Illinois Senate. Republican Rep. Mark Kirk is another of the "House Eight" who voted for the cap-and-trade bill. But as he faces Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in a tight race for Barack Obama's former Senate seat, he has inverted his stance. Kirk now says that he voted for the bill in the House because it was in the narrow interest of his district but that he would vote it down in the Senate. Giannoulias supports a "market-based system that puts a price on global warming pollution"--code for cap-and-trade or something similar. The League of Conservation Voters endorsed Kirk in 2008 but has endorsed Giannoulias in this race.

Climate change, however, could not be further from the candidates' minds right now. Both have battled ethics charges--Kirk regarding his military record, Giannoulias regarding his family's bank--and are seen unfavorably by a plurality of voters.

5. Pennsylvania Senate. Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak voted for the House cap-and-trade bill, a fact that former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey has used in attempts to frame Sestak as an extreme liberal. Toomey opposes cap-and-trade and has come out against Obama's deepwater drilling moratorium as well as expanded federal oversight of drilling in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale fields. The rock formation in the eastern part of the state has abundant natural gas reserves, which companies have been extracting via a controversial method. Sestak supports legislation proposed by Sen. Bob Casey to bring Marcellus Shale drilling under the purview of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

"Pennsylvania I think is interesting given Congressman Sestak's military background," said Mike Palamuso, communications director for the League of Conservation Voters (Sestak ranked as a vice admiral in the Navy and serves on the House Armed Services Committee). "I think he's uniquely positioned to understand the security interests of our energy interests."

"You couldn't have a better story to tell here," added Taylor-Miesle. "In Pennsylvania, they're really benefitting from lots of green jobs. My dad's working on a natural gas pipeline there as we speak."

Cap-and-trade surfaced as a hot-button issue in Pennsylvania politics earlier this year, as national attention turned to the 12th district special election for the late Rep. John Murtha's House seat. Democrat Mark Critz won that race after his Republican opponent sought to portray him as a cap-and-trade supporter, though Critz stated his opposition for the Democratic bill.

The winner of the Senate race--Toomey is currently leading by a nine-point margin--will help determine whether the state invests in green industry and how it manages its energy resources.
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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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