The Environmentalist’s Guide to the Congressional Elections (and more)

Your three-click cheat sheet for Tuesday's most significant choices other than McCain vs. Obama.

By Ben Whitford

With all the attention focused on the race for the White House, one could almost forget that November 4 will also see the election of 470 members of Congress, and countless statewide ballot initiatives. Many of these have the potential for major environmental repercussions. Here are some of the down-ticket races to watch.


U.S. Senate

North Carolina - Elizabeth Dole (R) vs Kay Hagan (D):’s first Senate ad buy of the season was an attack ad blasting Dole, a former Transportation Secretary and wife of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, for being “in the pocket of Big Oil.” It seemed like a long-shot, but with Republicans’ electoral fortunes dwindling along with the American public’s the liberal group has poured millions more into further ads bashing Dole’s pro-oil and anti-conservation voting record. It looks like the investment is paying dividends: Hagan, who as state senator fought for legislation boosting the solar sector and requiring 12.5 percent renewable-energy for North Carolinians, is currently a point or two up in the polls.

Colorado - Mark Udall (D) vs Bob Schaffer (R): Environmental pedigrees don’t come much better than Mark Udall’s: he’s the son of legendary conservationist Morris Udall; a nine-year congressman with a stellar legislative record, most notably on renewable energy; and — to top it all — an accomplished mountain-climber who’s tackled all 54 of his state’s 14,000-foot peaks. His rival, by contrast, is an oil executive whom the League of Conservation Voters dubbed “Big Oil Bob” after taking more than $150,000 in oil-sector donations. Udall’s campaign briefly faltered as gas prices spiked this summer, but he’s still odds-on favorite to turn Colorado from red to green.

New Mexico - Tom Udall (D) vs Steve Pearce (R): The opportunity to replace the retiring Republican, Pete Domenici, with…almost anyone else…is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for conservationists. Even better, in this race we’ve got Tom Udall, Mark’s cousin and a sitting congressman, and his 96 rating from the LCV. That’s a full 95 points better than his rival and fellow representative Steve Pearce; in the House, the pair have fallen on opposite sides of just about every environmental issue, from clean energy and clean air to drilling for oil in New Mexico’s pristine desert wilderness. Fortunately, Udall currently enjoys an 18-point lead in the polls.

Oklahoma - James Inhofe (R) vs Andrew Rice (D): The GOP’s climate-skeptic in chief, James Inhofe, has had an unexpectedly tough reelection campaign; he’s gone from a 41-point lead last December to a 13-point lead in recent polls, and the race is still tightening. If he loses, Democrats would likely be on course for a filibuster-proof supermajority, and greens’ schadenfreude would know no limit. For now, though, keep this one filed under “wishful thinking.”

House of Representatives

Texas, 7th district - John Culberson (R) vs. Michael Skelly (D): There are plenty of oil executives in Congress; now a renewable-energy executive wants to join the club. Skelly left his spot at Horizon Wind Energy to take on Republican incumbent Culberson in West Houston, and thanks to support from big-name Dems like New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, he’s pulled within single digits. Be warned, though: on the campaign trail Skelly has been touting his support for increased drilling as well as renewable energy.

California, 11th district - Jerry McNerney (D) vs. Dean Andal (R) : Former wind-power entrepreneur McNerney wowed greens in 2006 by dislodging Richard Pombo, a pro-logging, pro-drilling Republican who’d dedicated himself to eviscerating the Endangered Species Act. Now McNerney has another fight on his hands: Andal is a state assemblyman who’s voted against fuel-economy increases and clean-water legislation, vying to win back Central Valley seat back for the GOP. McNerney is a popular figure, but in traditionally Republican-leaning districts like this one incumbent Democrats are less than safe.

Pennsylvania’s 3rd district - Phil English (R) vs. Kathy Dahlkemper (D): The polls say Dahlkemper, a hybrid-driver who spent ten years as director of the Lake Erie Arboretum, should dislodge 15-year Republican incumbent English from his seat in northwestern Pennsylvania. That’s good for greens: over the years English has taken hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions from the energy sector; supported drilling in ANWR; and in the last Congress alone voted against renewable energy, fuel efficiency, and repealing tax breaks for oil giants.

Ballot initiatives


Proposition 2: This animal-welfare initiative, the centerpiece of a new strategy by the Humane Society, would require farmers to give livestock enough space to turn around, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. (Sounds crazy, right?) That would eliminate the use of veal-calf and pig-gestation crates — already banned in several states — and break new ground by effectively ending the use of battery cages in chicken-farming. Opponents say the proposition would decimate California’s 5-billion-egg-a-year poultry business and increase prices for consumers; Golden State greens counter that it would merely bring farmers into line with humane treatment and cost just a penny per egg.

Proposition 7: You’d think greens would love Prop 7, which would require utility companies to get half their energy from renewables by 2025 — quadrupling California’s clean-energy portfolio and creating 370,000 green-collar jobs. But environmentalists say the initiative has been cobbled together by people who don’t understand the energy sector, and that it would create loopholes and regulatory hurdles that might actually hinder the state’s progress toward clean-energy.

Proposition 10: Pitched as a successor to 2006’s failed Prop 87, which aimed to shift California away from petroleum-powered cars, Prop 10 would create alt-fuel subsidies worth $10 billion over 30 years. Greens are skeptical, though: The initiative doesn’t require better tailpipe standards for the subsidized vehicles, and has been bankrolled by Texas energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens — who stands to cash in if natural-gas vehicles technologies catch on.


Proposition C: For years the Show Me state’s lawmakers have been ducking calls to reduce its 82-percent-dependence on coal, with less than 1 percent from clean sources (in a state with plenty of wind near its population centers). Now greens have muscled Prop C onto the ballot; if passed, it would require utilities to procure 15 percent of their energy from renewables by 2021. Supporters say that would save the state millions of dollars while reducing emissions by as much as removing 2 million cars from the roads would do.


Amendment 58: Backed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, this measure would scrap tax breaks for Big Oil, boosting state coffers by more than $300 million and funding new college scholarships, wildlife restoration projects, and clean-energy research. Local enviros love the idea, but oil giants like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips have poured millions into an inaccurate FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) campaign to persuade voters that Amendment 58 would mean a hike in gas prices.


Question 742: Oklahomans could soon be guaranteed the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of small animals: this ballot measure would amend the state’s constitution to safeguard Oklahomans’ inalienable right to go hunting and fishing. Supporters say the move would give them a preemptive victory against the PETA crowd and other anti-hunting groups; the Humane Society calls the measure “cynical and underhanded…a threat to wildlife and also undemocratic” and says it could make it harder to manage wildlife populations humanely.