As Americans celebrate the 38th annual Earth Day today, conservation groups are gearing up for political battles that are just around the corner.
Environmentalists played a significant role in helping Democrats take control of Congress in the 2006 election cycle and are hoping to build on that momentum this year.
“Our priorities are to continue to try to transform the major environmental committees in the House and Senate to be real environmental committees rather than be in the pockets of the extractive industries, and to try to put more voices for conservation in the Senate,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the key players for the environmental movement every campaign season.
Last cycle, environmentalists bagged the biggest trophy possible when they helped knock off Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the then-chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who was public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of most green groups. Defenders of Wildlife, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an early ad campaign that bloodied Pombo, who fell to now-Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) by 6 points despite the Republican lean of the Central Valley district.
Some environmental leaders suggest that there are other Congressional Republicans whose records are almost as bad as Pombo’s who could be targeted this year — like Rep. Don Young (Alaska), who is now the ranking member on Natural Resources, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), one of four people placed on the LCV’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list so far.
“In 2006, our members brought down nine members of the Dirty Dozen, nine of the worst politicians in Washington,” LCV President Gene Karpinski said. “With that kind of record, this Dirty Dozen election may be the last vote that Senator McConnell ever wins.”
But Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic media consultant and former LCV political director, cautions that environmental groups are unlikely to get the same kind of enthusiasm behind efforts to oust individual Members this year.
“A victory like Richard Pombo comes along [once] a generation or so,” Longabaugh said. “I think it’s a strategic mistake to say that the environmental community is going to come along and take out another Pombo.”
Still, Longabaugh said that some of the issues that have come into play in the presidential election — like the high cost of energy and of gasoline prices in particular — aren’t just conservation issues but economic and national security issues that boost the environmentalists’ cause and are likely to become prominent in Congressional elections as well.
This week alone, Democratic operatives have tried to tar Republican House candidates for their ties to Big Oil and environmental polluters. Democrats were almost gleeful at the fact that potentially vulnerable Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) held a fundraiser Monday at the Manhattan apartment of an oil company executive, headlined by Vice President Cheney.
“Vito Fossella’s campaign must be in serious trouble to have to import Dick Cheney and his oil buddies,” said New York Democratic State Chairwoman June O’Neill in a statement. “Vito Fossella has already received nearly a hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from Big Oil and sends his thanks by consistently voting against laws that would conserve energy.”
And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Monday slammed Connecticut state Sen. David Cappiello, the likely Republican challenger to freshman Rep. Christopher Murphy (D), who is bringing in President Bush for a fundraiser this week.
“Earth Day is a wonderful reminder of how important it is to protect our natural resources and invest in clean energy alternatives,” said DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James. “Another status quo Republican like David Cappiello who adheres to President Bush’s failed economic policies and is beholden to Big Oil will certainly not fight to make our country more energy independent.”
Beyond the rhetoric, environmental groups are likely to spend most of their resources on just a select few races.
Schlickeisen said the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund has already decided to make New Mexico — where pro-industry Sen. Pete Domenici (R) is retiring and all three of the state’s House Members are running to replace him — ground zero this year. The group has dispatched the same organizer that lived in California for the Pombo race to Albuquerque, and is making the election of Rep. Tom Udall (D) to Domenici’s seat its top priority.
Earlier this month, the organization began airing TV ads attacking the two Republicans in the New Mexico Senate race, Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson, and is currently airing radio ads blasting the duo.
“We want to punish the environment’s enemies and reward the environment’s friends,” Schlickeisen said.
Other environmental groups are also enthusiastically backing Udall, in addition to former Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich, the leading Democrat in the race for Wilson’s seat, and New Mexico Public Utility Commissioner Ben Ray Lujan (D), the frontrunner to replace Udall in the House.
Environmental leaders and Democratic strategists said the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club are likely to make the election of Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to the Senate one of their top priorities this year — in part because the LCV’s top political hand, Tony Massarro, is a Colorado political veteran, and because Maggie Fox, Udall’s wife, is a former top Sierra Club official who knows the political terrain there so well (though she is not affiliated with the group at the moment).
Other candidates endorsed so far by the LCV this cycle include former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), who is challenging Sen. John Sununu (R); former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D), who is challenging Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.); teacher Larry Kissell (D), who is in a rematch with Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.); and physician Victoria Wulsin (D), who is in a rematch with Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio).
The LCV has scored two big victories already this cycle, when attorney Donna Edwards (D) ousted Rep. Albert Wynn (D) in the Maryland Democratic primary, and when now-Rep. Bill Foster (D) won the special election to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The LCV has endorsed Republicans this cycle, including Reps. Mike Castle (Del.) and Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), and Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), who lost a Republican primary earlier this year.
In competitive races, the Sierra Club has endorsed Oregon state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, who is competing in the Democratic primary to take on Sen. Gordon Smith (R); New Jersey state Sen. John Adler (D), who is running to replace retiring Rep. Jim Saxton (R); and freshman Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), who is in a tough re-election fight. The club has also taken the unusual step of endorsing both a Republican, state Sen. Leonard Lance, and a Democrat, state Assemblywoman Linda Stender, in the highly competitive race to replace retiring Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.).
But while environmental groups reach out to some Republicans, they realize that making the Congress — and particularly the Senate — more Democratic is a salient argument that could get their voters motivated this fall.
Longabaugh noted that the current debate over global warming in the Senate, with Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) taking the lead, would look different with even a few more pro-environment Members in the chamber.
And what of McNerney, the man who ousted public enemy No. 1 in 2006? Many Republicans are seeking revenge — and Pombo is hoping to turn loose what remains of his political operation on the man who defeated him. But while environmental groups are expecting to support him — the Sierra Club has already bestowed its endorsement — it remains to be seen whether they will send in the heavy artillery for his race against former state Assemblyman Dean Andal (R).
“My perception is he’s well-positioned to hold on to that seat, but all of us are keeping an eye on it,” Longabaugh said. “With resources being shy, you don’t want to fight last year’s battle if McNerney can get it done on his own.”