Cantor Can’t

Eric Cantor went down in a surprise defeat Tuesday night to a tea party unknown, David Brat, upsetting the Congressional order. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of this fate, but not for the reasons he suffered it.  His lifetime environmental score of 4% should earn him scorn but he may be about to be replaced with a representative who might proudly sport a zero rating.

What are the lessons to be learned from this race? For the Republican Party, the erroneous and overlearned response could well be the need to bow even further to the extremism of the tea party movement. For the environment this would mean more denialism about the existence of climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence, instead of coming to the table for solutions.

Overreaction by the GOP would be especially curious in light of the string of primary victories by so-called establishment Republicans in Senate races in places like Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina.  If the tea party’s wins from 2010 were considered to be episode one in this series, then this year’s episode two would definitely be called, “The Establishment Strikes Back.”

Yet overreaction could well be the order of the day.  For now safely perched in a politically safe and weirdly gerrymandered House majority, the far right wing of the Republican party continues to push for an extreme agenda that many establishment Republicans believe hampers their ability to win control of the White House and the Senate.  Frankly, allowing more progressive views on the environmental matters within the party would be the smartest path forward, and was the case before the rise of the tea party.  But I’m certainly not arguing that Cantor would have done better in the race if he had been better on the environment.  I’m just saying for establishment Republicans to conclude that they should not be better on the environment generally as a result of this race would be a serious error.

So what is the difference between tea party and the GOP establishment these days? Not much on policy, at least not since almost every moderate Republican member of Congress has given up or been driven out of the party. It seems to be mostly style, in the sense of an insistence by one side on a purity of position and a staunch resistance to working with others to get things done.  Still it makes a big difference to be at least reasonable and not radical. Or as Peter King, who’s no liberal, observed about Cantor’s defeat, “I don’t know where we go now as a party.  I’m very concerned that we may go all the way to the right, following Ted Cruz and the shutdown congressman, and marginalizing us as a responsible governing party.”

Cantor’s defeat can mostly be understood as an inattentive effort by a politician whose ambitions lay elsewhere.  If there was a policy issue that decided this race, it may have been immigration, where Cantor’s opponent accused him of supporting “amnesty” for his work on a Republican version of reform.  The party has struggled to construct a viable national strategy to attract the support of minorities and Latinos in particular, but a National Republican Committee proposal to do that has not taken hold. The same problem persists for the party among young people and women.

Yet the party continues to cut itself off from these groups with its policy agenda, including hostility to action on one of the most important issues of the day – clean air and climate change. Despite reams of polling data proving the support among these demographic groups for action on climate change, the tea party has maintained its choke hold on this issue.

Cantor can’t be the template for the GOP establishment if they want to reshape their national politics.  Instead of learning the wrong lesson about this race, they should master the proof contained in this polling. And it wouldn’t hurt for them to reexamine the irrefutable scientific proof behind climate change at the same time.

Lessons from Virginia

As Virginians await the final results of this year’s election, one fact has emerged as clear.  The more extreme – or less mainstream – the Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed at the polls.

This fact can be simply established by listing the three main Republican candidates’ ideological stances and comparing it to their popular vote tally.  The most extreme of the candidates was Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson, who was so extreme the other candidates didn’t want to mention him during their campaigns and balked at being associated with him.  He came in third on the list with 44.54 percent of the vote.  The least extreme candidate, Mark Obenshain for Attorney General, did the best (49.88 percent of the vote) and trails in a race so close that a recount is almost certain.

That oddly puts Ken Cuccinelli in the middle of the pack where extremism is concerned.  Yes that’s right, the darling of the Virginia tea party who attracted so much national attention for his far right views ranked second in extremism behind Jackson on a slate chosen at a convention dominated by activists.  His vote total was also middling at 45.23 percent of the vote, which was much closer than many thought it would be, but a poor enough showing that the race was decided before the end of the night.

There has been much speculation about the role that overarching issues such as the government shutdown or the health care launch may have played in the race for governor.  But the effect on the party preference of voters of any of these issues would have been felt up and down the ticket and therefore should not have altered the relative standings of the candidates.  So what did?

Let’s consider the margin that ended up separating Obenshain and Cuccinelli.  Terry McAuliffe did an effective job of framing Cuccinelli as the candidate that was out of step with the mainstream values of Virginia.   At least in Northern Virginia, three of the issues he used to support this “out-of-step” claim were woman’s issues, gun control, and the environment, the latter of which focused on Cuccinelli’s role as a climate change denier.    Whatever the importance of these issues to voters when taken individually, they were put together with the purpose of documenting the larger point that Cuccinelli was an extremist in the grip of far right ideology.

And Cuccinelli was guilty as charged on climate change.  He not only denied humans were contributing to climate change, but also opposed any actions to curb it.  What’s more, as attorney general he attacked the veracity of climate sciences research conducted at the University of Virginia for purely political reasons, even though the scientists had been independently cleared of any wrong doing.  Although these were favorable stances with his tea party base, they were definitely at odds with the popular opinion in Virginia, where 77 percent of citizens agree that past warming has been caused by humans and an overwhelming majority support actions on climate change (for example, 81 percent support reducing greenhouse gases from power plants).

In comparison, Obenshain consciously kept his distance from the tea party froth around Jackson and Cuccinelli, emphasizing an independent and bipartisan image in his campaign ads.  This is not to say that he is a moderate who supports real action on climate change – he’s not.  It only means that he knew better than to allow his opponent, Mark Herring, to easily use this issue or others to paint him into the same corner as the rest of the ticket.

The closer–than-expected result in the governor’s race has left unresolved the dispute between tea party Republicans and mainstream Republicans in the state and elsewhere.  The tea party feels their candidate was abandoned and could have won with more help, and the establishment believes they would not have needed so much help if the party had nominated a better positioned Republican, such as Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.  Of these two views, the establishment would seem to have the stronger argument – even if the race could have been won (which isn’t certain), it would have required diversion of scarce resources from other races where they were needed.  Wouldn’t it have been better not to have made that race so difficult to begin with?

The lesson for the Republican Party for their image in Virginia and elsewhere is simple.  Playing to the base comes at a price, as it often gets you out of step with a majority of the voters on a rack of important issues, including climate change.  This year in Virginia, the price of catering to the party base may have been more than the Republicans could afford.

Energy Shaping Virginia Senate Race

In this, our third post in a series on down ballot elections with big energy implications, we’ll focus on the Virginia Senate race. Competing to represent Old Dominion are former Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and former Senator George Allen, a Republican.

It’s a battleground in both the so-called “War on Coal” and for control of the United States Senate. Accordingly, Big Coal and their polluter allies have been investing heavily in the candidate they believe will advance their Dirty Energy agenda: George Allen.

An example of an ad being run by Karl Rove’s group, Crossroads GPS

You know the stakes are high for Rove’s polluter friends because the group has already spent more than six million dollars opposing Tim Kaine. That’s on top of millions being spent by other pro-polluter groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the curiously named American Commitment (commitment to what, asthma?)

Polluters have been stuffing Allen’s campaign coffers for years. Our friends at the League of Conservation Voters note that as a Senator, Allen took over half a million dollars in campaign cash from the oil and gas industry and consistently voted against the environment and to protect tax breaks and loopholes that line Big Oil’s pockets.

What’s Kaine’s record? As Governor, he worked for land conservation, river cleanup, clean air, public transportation and energy efficiency. And his plans for the future? He’s adopted the environmentally questionable but politically expedient “all of the above” approach to energy policy, as you can see in this ad.

Yet, despite his professed support for coal and offshore drilling, Kaine’s not afraid to talk about the importance of addressing climate change and reducing carbon pollution. He says we “need a commitment to transition to a lower-carbon energy portfolio for the good of the economy, the environment and global security.” In contrast, Allen doesn’t seem to think climate change is even a concern.

The fossil fuel industry hopes that their big investment will pay off in the form of a reliable vote for Dirty Energy in the Senate. They have millions to spend, but the planet can’t afford to have George Allen in Congress.