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It's Not the Climate Bill, Stupid

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[This post is written by NRDC Action Fund's Rob Perks, who is the Director of NRDC's Center for Advocacy Campaigns]

The role of federal climate legislation in the mid-term Congressional elections, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is being greatly exaggerated. For instance, Politico was quick to blame last year's vote on the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) for the defeat of House Democrats.

In reality, 160 Democratic representatives who voted for the House climate bill won their elections yesterday. (This does not include four races that are still too close to call as of this writing.) On the other hand, 19 of 34 representatives who voted against the bill went down in defeat. (This excludes two races that were not decided as of this writing.)

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[UPDATE, 11/04: E&E Daily has a story today that echoes my analysis, with a headline that is on point: "Being a Democrat, rather than voting for cap and trade, was the true political killer." (Sorry, no link provided because subscription is required.) As the article explains: "According to conventional wisdom, House Democrats who voted for a sweeping climate change bill last year paid a steep price for it on Election Day. But the theory of greenhouse gas emissions limits as ballot-box poison only goes so far, according to an E&E Daily analysis of competitive races. Among the Democratic-held House seats rated most endangered on election eve by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, 61 percent of incumbents who voted for the 2009 cap-and-trade bill lost their races. But the most threatened incumbents who opposed the legislation fared even worse, with 79 percent falling despite their resistance to a measure the GOP savaged as "cap and tax." The better overall performance by vulnerable House Democrats who survived after backing the climate plan - a camp that ranges from the Mountain West to the South and includes three Iowans - is hardly a vindication of a legislative process that left even some environmentalists soured on the final cap-and-trade bill. It does suggest, however, that many Democrats in swing districts were brought low by voter discontent with a bad economy and an ambitious federal agenda, not the 1,200-page climate plan specifically."]

It seems that disgruntled independent voters tipped the election away from the party in power toward Republicans. So, whether this election is viewed as a sign of antipathy toward or flat-out repudiation of the Democrats over the lackluster economy or any other policy frustrations, one thing is clear: concern about the ill-fated cap-and-trade climate legislation barely registered with voters.

Indeed, according to a survey released today by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, when voters who chose the Republican candidate were asked in an open ended question to name their biggest concern about the Democrat, only 1 percent cited something related to energy or cap and trade. And when offered a list of six arguments Republicans made against Democrats, only 7 percent of voters selected the so-called "cap and trade energy tax."

There you have it: the mid-term election was about the economy, stupid - not clean energy and climate legislation.

But make no mistake, voters of all political stripes still care about those issues. Indeed, polling from across the country shows that Americans overwhelmingly support clean energy policies and comprehensive efforts to protect our air and water.

And in California, voters resoundingly rejected Proposition 23, a move by Texas oil companies to roll back the state's landmark clean energy and climate law.

So the takeaway from the contentious mid-term elections is this: voters may disagree on a number of political issues but there is common ground to be found on the issue of clean energy - and elected leaders should take notice.