THE BLOG

Note to Coal Friendly Democrats: Opposing Carbon Limits Won't Win You Any Friends

06/04/2014 03:14 pm 15:14:26 | Updated Aug 04, 2014
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

If you only read the newspaper headlines the last two days, you would think the sky is falling because a few Democrats in coal states said they opposed carbon pollution standards.

But like Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story.

Leaders from across the nation have heralded the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Lawmakers, business executives, doctors, Latino organizations, and environmental groups welcome this breakthrough in the effort to protect public health and fight climate change.

More typical responses included Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) who said he supports the EPA's carbon limits because "climate change is threatening Colorado's special way of life." And previously Representative Gary Peters (D-MI), challenged his opponent Terri Lynn Land for failing to recognize how climate change is threatening the Great Lakes.

It was only a small group of Democratic candidates for Congress who didn't get the memo. Sadly, those few outweighed the many in the news coverage.

For example, Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) called the safeguards "disastrous." And Alison Lundergan Grimes, running for Senate against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "When I am in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the President's attack on Kentucky's coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my number one priority."

But this midterm election was never about West Virginia and Kentucky. These Democrats were never on the side of President Obama's climate action plan. And these states will not make or break the ultimate control of the Senate next year. The swing states where control will be decided, like New Hampshire, Michigan, Iowa and Colorado, have Democratic candidates who support reducing carbon pollution.

Ultimately candidates who run away from public health and climate protections will find themselves isolated from their own voters. And it will make the Senate more vulnerable to Republican takeover.

Clean air and climate champions have the advantage now.

More than two-thirds of voters in 11 battleground states say the EPA should limit carbon pollution from power plants, according to a March poll done by Harstad Strategic Research for the NRDC Action Fund.

This week yet another poll confirmed the depth of support. A Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 70 percent of Americans want the federal government to limit climate change pollution from power plants, including 57 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Independents, and 79 percent of Democrats. The poll asked voters if they would support carbon limits even if electricity costs rise--NRDC analysis shows people's monthly bills will likely go down--and 51 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Independents, and 71 percent of Democrats said yes.

This majority support held firm even in coal-heavy states, and yet some Democrats running in these places are still trying to distance themselves from carbon limits. Perhaps they think the coal industry will miraculously embrace them. Or at least stop spending millions of dollars to attack them. But the truth is: the coal industry will never anoint them. The industry has long-since picked its pet candidates, and it won't switch affections just because someone says a few coal-friendly comments on carbon limits.

Some candidates have noticed the ground shifted in the past few years. Opponents will continue to make the claim that climate action spells trouble at the ballot box. But as extreme weather began destroying people's homes and livelihoods, voters started to care about climate change.

In 2008, young voters people helped carry President Obama to victory, in part because of his commitment to tackling the climate crisis. In 2012, the Koch brothers and their allies spent more than $270 million in TV ads in the last two months of the campaign alone, yet clean energy and climate candidates won up and down the ticket. The Koch brothers had a 5 percent win rate last cycle, while the environmental community had an almost 100 percent win rate. For an industry highly focused on its return on investment, they don't have much to show their investors when it comes to the electoral politics of climate change. The big money is not always the smarter money.

This kind of support for climate action can help Democrats carve a path to victory and a Senate majority. But candidates who speak for the coal industry may find themselves on a lonely road.