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Policy Update 11/10/2010: Election aftermath


Policy Update 11/10/2010: Election aftermath

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Last week's election will have major consequences for U.S. climate and energy policy. Republicans won a net victory of 60 seats in the House, 6 seats in the Senate, and at least 6 governorships. A number of climate champions lost tight races to candidates who deny climate science, but in California's Prop 23, the only race with global warming on the ballot, climate won by a decisive margin.

Election Results:

  • Senate: Democrats maintained control of the Senate but lost 6 seats on net, going from 59 seats to 53 seats.
  • House: Democrats lost control of the House, going from a 255-180 majority to a 187-239 minority, a 60-vote swing. Of the 8 races that are too close to call half lean toward Democrats and half lean toward Republicans.
  • In California, dirty energy ballot measure, Prop 23 was defeated by a substantial margin: 61-39. Prop 23 represents the largest public referendum in history on clean energy and climate policy.

What The Results Mean for Climate:

Looking at House climate votes in particular, candidates who voted for the ACES climate bill generally performed better than members who voted against it. Over 84% of the 211 Democrats supporting ACES won re-election and of the ACES supporters who lost re-election, many of them were members who helped weaken ACES, like Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), or members who have been leading efforts to gut the Clean Air Act, like Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND). Over half of the 44 Democrats voting against ACES lost their seats.

The White House and congressional Democrats are mostly attributing losses to a stifled economy and high unemployment, whereas Republicans are portraying the results as a referendum on the Obama Administration's policies. At 1Sky, we think that undue influence from dirty energy interests played a major role in the outcome of the election.

Key races for climate:

Outspoken climate champion and underdog Tom Perriello (D-VA) lost by 3.7 points in his conservative central Virginia district. Perriello's loss prompted some pundits to dub his strong stance on climate legislation a political failure, but looking at comparable races suggests otherwise. In another Virginia district freshman Glenn Nye's (D-VA) strategy was to distance himself from major votes like healthcare and climate; however, Nye's district, which supported Obama in '08, voted him out of office by an 11 point margin, 4 more than Perriello lost by despite similarities in their political situations.

For the 8 Republicans who broke with their party to support the House climate bill, the election went rather well. Despite promises of retribution from the conservative blogosphere, 7 out of 8 clean energy Republicans either won reelection or are now serving in a higher office (Senator, Secretary of the Army).

Joe Romm at Climate Progress points out that in in the two Senate races where climate change became a major issue, the candidates who denied the existence of manmade climate change both lost: in Colorado Ken Buck lost to climate champion Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), and in California Carly Fiorina lost to climate champion Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Both unsuccessful challengers invited Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to share the stage with them during their campaigns. In particular, Colorado's national leadership on clean energy made climate a winning campaign issue for Bennett, according to analysis from the Center for American Progress.

Analysis suggests that specific votes like the House climate bill had little to no effect on the outcome of the election. An exit poll of 1,000 voters in battleground districts commissioned by the Leave of Conservation Voters found that only 1% of voters were discontent with the Democratic candidate because of a policy position relating to energy.

Josh Roseneau at did a particularly robust analysis of this correlation between climate vote and election performance. Roseneau made a plot of election performance in competitive races as a function of Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) for each House district and, after controlling for health care reform votes, identified individual data points by climate vote and election outcome. The result is an impressive graph showing that election performance was strongly correlated with PVI and political party, and that the effect of voting for the climate bill is "not statistically different from zero." However, his plot also shows variation amongst bill supporters and opponents, which could suggest that some candidates defended their vote more successfully than others, as seen with Perriello and Nye in VA.

One of the greatest indicators of how House candidates performed was not their position on major pieces of legislation, but the politics of their particular district. For example, for the past 2 years the Democrats have been governing with 59% control of both the House and Senate, but in the 2008 election, only 53% of the popular vote went to President Obama. Forty-eight House Democrats have been presiding over districts won by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008. Of these "McCain Democrats" in the House, 29 of them opposed climate legislation in the House, and more than 36 of them lost their seats. Of the 20 or so districts won by both Obama and Kerry that were in play, only 9 members lost their seats.

A predictable opposition talking point is that this election was a referendum on specific policies and votes, like the House climate vote. Big polluters who shelled out millions in campaign cash want to make sure their message reads like this Politico headline: "Day of Reckoning Comes for Climate vote" Before the election, NRDC commissioned polling in key districts that disproved the opposition's theory that supporting climate legislation has negative political consequences amongst the electorate. Polls found that voters in battleground districts where many Democrats lost their seats overwhelmingly favored candidates who support climate and energy legislation, by average 20%.

The Center for American Progress produced a comprehensive analysis of turnout and exit polls to highlight some important take-aways for progressives.
  • 68% of the country voted in 2008, but only 40% of the country voted in this election.
  • The 2010 electorate was older, whiter, and more conservative than the 2010 electorate. Those who voted for Obama in '08 were less likely to vote, and those who voted for McCain in '08 were more likely to vote.
  • Youth voters made up a less significant percentage of the total vote than usual, representing a mere 11% of the vote this year compared to 18% in 2008 1nd 13% in 2006. Only 20% of youth under 30 turned out to vote. That's far less then in last election, and even 2 points lower than the last midterm in 2006. Heather Smith of Rock the Vote blames the "leadership gap" from candidates who didn't appeal to young voters on issues they care about.

A history of shifting power:

This election marks the largest swing in the House of Representatives since 1948, although swings of 40+ seats have generally occurred at least once per decade on average in midterm years over the last century.

State Elections:

Democrats lost 6-8 governorships on net, including key states that will influence the presidential map next election, like OH, FL, MI, and PA. Gains in governorships and in state legislatures will give Republicans the upper hand in redistricting based on the 2010 Census.

Two new governor-elects have vowed to cancel $1.2 billion clean energy investments, like high speed rail in Wisconsin and Ohio. Governorships like Maine and other states that changed hands could have immediate ramifications for state and regional climate policies. For example Governor-elect LePage (R) from Maine supports offshore drilling, wants to dissolve the EPA and Dept. of Energy, is opposed to comprehensive climate legislation (like RGGI already up and running in Maine), and denies manmade climate change.

Despite the good news that California dirty energy Prop 23 was soundly defeated, another polluter-backed ballot measure, Prop 26, did pass 53-47. Prop 26 would require a two-thirds super-majority to pass any new tax or fee on corporations, but California also passed Prop 25 to improve budget gridlock, so it's unclear how the ballot measure will be implemented. Analysis from UCLA law school suggests that Prop 26 could hamper the implementation of California's climate law, AB 32, but many experts predict that the ballot measure will be litigated or dismissed in the courts.

The Role of Dirty Money:

Overall, the 2010 elections saw an unprecedented amount of outside spending for a midterm race, with a far greater increase in funds from conservative-leaning outside groups according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

  • Conservative: $188.9 million, up from $19.6 million in the last midterm (increased by a factor of 9.6)
  • Liberal: $92.3 million, up from $39 million in the last midterm (increased by a factor of 2.4)
  • Total outside spending: $280 million up from $59 million in the last midterm (increased by a factor of 4.7)

Analysis from the Center for American Progress notes that over $69.5 million in outside political spending came from dirty energy industries like big oil and coal-heavy electric utilities. Politico reports unprecedented coordination among conservative outside groups in an effort to defeat vulnerable Democrats.

What's Next for Climate?

At a shale-gas conference last week Karl Rove promised representatives from the energy industry that "climate is gone," and that the new House "sure as heck" won't pass climate legislation. Analysis by Think Progress found that 50% of the incoming Republican freshmen in the House and Senate deny the existence of manmade climate change, and over 86% oppose climate legislation. Only four House Republicans have made public statements affirming their trust in climate science, and interestingly none of them voted in favor of the House climate bill last year.

President Obama's post-election comments do suggest that he has abandoned comprehensive climate legislation for the next two years, opting instead to pursue smaller energy packages that include nuclear energy, electric vehicles, and increased natural gas production.

With comprehensive climate legislation off the table, the Clean Air Act is the best tool available to move climate policies forward in the short-term. The key to keeping the Obama Administration's new Clean Air Act regulations moving forward will be defending them against political pressure from Congress, and building a strong showing of support at the grassroots level. Dirty energy champion Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is already calling for renewed efforts to stall Clean Air Act implementation, which could come up in the lame duck.

Lame Duck Outlook:

The general consensus is that only minor legislation will be considered in the lame duck.One major development to watch over the next couple weeks is the Leadership shuffle among both parties.

In the House, sitting Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) will become Speaker, and sitting Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) will likely become the next Majority Leader. Other leadership positions will be hotly contested. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is currently unopposed in her bid to become House Minority Leader. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) are competing for the role of Minority Whip.

Many committee leadership roles will be shuffled. Climate deniers are vying for control of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee in a four-way contest. With some senior Democrats losing reelection bids, Democrats will be fighting for next-in-line status on key committees.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will likely maintain their leadership roles. Winners of four special elections in four states will be seated immediately, including three Democrats, and one Republican flip. For climate policy, the two key seats include the party flip in Illinois, from Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) to Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R), and a victory for conservative Democrat Joe Manchin (D-WV) (replacing the late Sen. Robert Byrd), who literally shot the House climate bill with a rifle in one of his campaign ads.

The outcomes of these key races make votes to block the Clean Air Act more of a threat during the lame duck and next year. CQ has published detailed bios for new members of Congress.

Congressional Timeline:

  • Nov 15th: post-election session of 111th Congress begins (i.e. the lame duck)
  • Nov 16th-18th: Leadership elections in Senate and House
  • Nov 22nd-26th: Thanksgiving recess
  • Dec 3rd: The current "continuing resolution" on appropriations expires (which means they need to vote on another resolution before then)
  • Jan 3rd: The 112th Congress begins.

Prepared by Jason Kowalski. Please direct questions or comments to

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