A sign of things to come?

All eyes were on the presidential hopefuls in this week’s Potomac Primaries - but away from the media spotlight, progressives were staging something of a coup. In a Democratic congressional primary in Maryland’s ultraliberal 4th district, voters ousted incumbent Congressman Al Wynn and gave a landslide victory to Donna Edwards, a local community activist.

It’s not often that an incumbent bottoms out at the primary stage, so the results raised eyebrows inside the beltway - especially because Wynn’s loss stemmed in large part from the congressman’s apathy on environmental issues. As chairman of an important environmental subcommittee, Wynn held pitifully few hearings and achieved little; meanwhile, he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from energy companies. On the floor of the House, his record was even worse: He backed legislation giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to oil giants, opposed increasing fuel-efficiency standards, and voted to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act.

By contrast, Donna Edwards has an unimpeachable environmental record: She founded her own grassroots organization, worked to conserve the Potomac shoreline, and fought for better public transport options across Maryland. In Congress, she says she’ll fight for mandatory emissions caps and tougher fuel-efficiency standards, while opposing mountaintop mining and coal and nuclear expansion. Her principled stand won her the backing of the Sierra Club, MoveOn and the League of Conservation Voters, the full-throated support of the Democratic netroots - and, ultimately, a resounding endorsement from Maryland’s primary voters.

On the Hill, lawmakers are eying Edwards’ victory with a degree of discomfort: There’s speculation that the same desire for change that’s helping Barack Obama on the national stage could make life decidedly uncomfortable for anyone unlucky enough to be up for reelection in November. In principle, that’s good news for greens: It’d give progressive lawmakers grounds to keep up the good work, while spurring their less environmentally friendly colleagues to reconsider their position.

It’s not quite that simple, though. This week, Maryland Republicans also ousted one of their own: Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, a moderate who opposed drilling for oil in Arctic, backed conservation projects and consistently fought for better regulation of energy producers. In the end, Gilchrest’s green credentials made him a target for conservative activists; he lost the party’s nomination by an even bigger margin than Wynn.

The real lesson from Chesapeake is that the grassroots are fired up on both sides of the ideological divide. That will likely push lawmakers from both parties to play to their core supporters - and could, in the end, make it even harder for congressional leaders to push through bipartisan environmental reforms.

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