Races where the environment matters. Sort of.


Environmentalists can't contain their glee about Jay Inslee's candidacy for governor of Washington. "I can count on one hand the members of Congress … that are like Jay Inslee," gushed League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski at a Washington chapter event last October. The national LCV usually stays out of state politics, but at that event, Inslee received its first gubernatorial endorsement in 30-some years. "We want to help him get elected to be the greenest governor in the United States," Karpinski said.

As a Democratic congressman representing the Yakima Valley, and later Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Inslee built his political identity around tireless clean energy advocacy. That's unlikely to be a deciding factor this year in Washington, though, where, like most places, "the economy dominates," says pollster Stuart Elway, with education "right behind it."

But candidates' environmental records could impact election results for other reasons: Environmental super PACs and other political advocacy groups, offshoots of the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and the like, are launching aggressive campaigns nationwide against Republicans seen as anti-environmental. They're spending an unprecedented amount, with bigger sums going to fewer races than in 2010, in an attempt to "have a disproportionate impact" on key seats, according to a memo by Navin Nayak, LCV's senior vice president for campaigns. Particularly in the Senate, explained Nayak, "it is critical that we maintain a firewall (against) the extreme policies being passed" in the House.

New Mexico U.S. Senate: Martin Heinrich, D, vs. Heather Wilson, R

Heinrich and Wilson are competing for the seat being vacated by Jeff Bingaman, D, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Heinrich, a former New Mexico Wilderness Alliance board member who calls himself a clean-energy and public-lands champion, was LCV's first endorsement this season. Wilson, a former congresswoman and national security advisor, is a moderate Republican, running on debt reduction, a free-enterprise philosophy, and an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Through PACs and 501(c)(4)s, an environmental coalition including LCV, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council outspent conservative powerhouses like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's super PAC American Crossroads this summer and fall, running attacks against Wilson for protecting oil company interests over public health. Though this was expected to be one of the closest races of the season, recent polls give Heinrich a relatively comfortable lead.

Washington Governor: Jay Inslee, D, vs. Rob McKenna, R

Besides the main PACs supporting each candidate – both funded primarily by the partisan governors' associations – Washington Conservation Voters plans to be among the most lavish outside spenders in the game. McKenna is much more moderate on environmental issues than his party as a whole – supporting, for instance, EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases. Still, since Inslee "has been one of the very strongest environmental leaders in the U.S. Congress," says WCV executive director Brendon Cechovic, in mid-October the group was preparing to unleash "well over" $500,000, mostly on direct mail to undecided voters attacking McKenna and promoting Inslee. They will also have a 1,000-strong volunteer army knocking on doors. In 2008, WCV spent only $50,000 on the governor's race, says Cechovic.

Montana U.S. Senate: Jon Tester, D, vs. Denny Rehberg, R

This toss-up race is a top priority for environmentalists not only because it could prove decisive to the Senate's partisan balance but because Rehberg, Montana's only congressman, has a career score of just 6 percent from LCV for pro-environment votes (versus 96 percent from the Independent Petroleum Association of America). Tester, meanwhile, has voted against continued tax breaks for oil companies and bills rolling back environmental regulations. LCV has joined with a local sportsmen's PAC to run television ads and direct mail campaigns against Rehberg, and is knocking on doors to get out the vote. They say they've recruited 28,000 Tester supporters with spotty voting histories to vote by mail, and will ramp up similar efforts this month. Tester won by less than 4,000 votes in 2006, so turnout will be crucial for both sides.

U.S. House, California 7th District: Ami Bera, D, vs. Dan Lungren, R

Unlike the presidential candidates, in a recent debate Bera and incumbent Lungren had an entire exchange about climate change. Bera believes in manmade warming, while Lungren said in the debate "we don't know" what's causing it. Lungren voted against the 2009 climate bill and opposes EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. Bera's climate outlook helped him earn the Sacramento Bee's endorsement. (In 2010, the first time Bera challenged Lungren, the paper endorsed Lungren.) Thanks to redistricting, the House seat is now more competitive for Democrats. LCV and the Sierra Club have together spent more on this race than the largest union spender, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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