For much of the year, Democratic leaders and their allies off Capitol Hill have claimed that a vote in favor of a sweeping climate change bill would prove to be a political windfall rather than disaster for moderate Democrats facing tough elections.
Perhaps nowhere will that theory be put more to the test than a congressional district in southern New Mexico, where a first-term Democrat has spent much of the last few months attempting to justify his vote in favor of climate legislation and where a former Republican congressman is hoping to ride dissatisfaction over the legislation back to Capitol Hill.
New Mexico's 2nd District seat, now held by Rep. Harry Teague (D), is one of the Republican Party's top targets in the 2010 election cycle. The party held the seat for three decades before losing it last year, with Republicans blaming the loss on a unique pro-Obama wave across the state combined with a less-than-ideal candidate who ran a poor campaign.
But when Teague earlier this year cast a vote for the House climate bill, the district quickly became a test case on the political potency of the cap-and-trade issue.
Teague's campaign challenge will come from former Rep. Steve Pearce (R), who held the seat for three terms before resigning to run for the Senate in 2008. Pearce lost badly in the general election to now-Sen. Tom Udall (D) and, in the meantime, Democrats seized control of Pearce's old congressional seat, which the former congressman had previously carried by comfortable margins.
With the election about a year away and the fate of the climate bill still up in the air, it is hard to predict exactly which party would benefit the most politically from action on the legislation. But at least for now the vote has had the exact impact that many Republicans had hoped, with a moderate Democrat having to repeatedly defend his vote and observers speculating that it may become a permanent drag on his re-election hopes.
"When he voted for cap and trade all the anger in that district that had been focused on Obama and Nancy Pelosi shifted to Harry Teague and it has stayed there," said Heath Haussamen, an independent political analyst in New Mexico. "It sort of allowed all the frustrations around the economy and health care and all that stuff to center around Harry Teague."
Like other moderate Democrats who have seen a wave of criticism due to their vote on the legislation, Teague has stuck by his backing of the legislation and has described it as a much-needed attempt to address oil dependence and increasing costs to consumers.
"Like many throughout southern New Mexico, I am tired of America being forced to pay $400 billion a year for foreign oil and allowing foreign nations like Venezuela and Iran to determine the price of a barrel of oil," Teague said. "We're tired of standing by and watching as nations like China and India take over America's role as the global energy technology leader."
Teague added, "And we are tired of Congress standing by and doing nothing to help stabilize household energy expenditures, which increased by approximately $1,000 per household between 2001 and 2007."
Just as Teague and other Democrats remain intent on defending the legislation, Republicans appear equally confident that the bill will help the party reclaim many of the seats it has lost in the last two cycles. "Absolutely the anger still exists in the district," said Paul Ciaramitaro, spokesman for the Pearce campaign. "I think Teague has a lot of work to do to repair the damage that has been done."
And exactly which party seizes the political momentum on the climate change bill could have significant impact for the fate of the legislation, as the current timeline may put a vote on the final version of the bill just a few months before Election Day -- with lawmakers increasingly thinking about how that vote may play back home.
Which side is the district on?
Pearce announced his intention to try to reclaim the seat just days after the late June House vote on the climate bill, pointing specifically to that legislation as the reason for his entry into the race and attacking Teague for placing his "allegiance to the liberal leadership of Nancy Pelosi ahead of the working families of New Mexico."
Pearce has continued that drumbeat in the months following the vote. His campaign even put out a press release when Senate Democrats unveiled their version of the climate bill, describing the Teague-supported "economically catastrophic cap & trade program" as being one step closer to reality.
Republican officials say the campaign to oust Teague is about more than just the cap-and-trade vote, with Pearce expected to campaign heavily on the issues of jobs and the economy. But they also say the cap-and-trade bill will be a pillar of that overreaching message -- helping to portray Teague as someone who will vote for the agenda of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over the interests of his constituents.
"Part of our message is that he is enabling a Democratic majority that is not representative of the 2nd District," Ciaramitaro said. "Yeah, he can pick and choose when he votes with them, but the full result is that he's part of a majority that is implementing these policies."
Of course for that strategy to work, a significant number of voters in the district must believe that a cap-and-trade bill would in fact be damaging to the district. And on that point, the two sides in the debate differ dramatically, with allies arguing that the majority of votes are actually on his side and Teague critics claiming that the vote was a political kiss of death for the freshman Democrat.
"There has been such a huge fallout from his cap-and-trade vote," said Marita Noon, executive director of Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy, a group that advocates for the energy industry. "He has clearly felt the pain."
The reaction to the vote has been particularly dramatic not only because of the district's idealogical bent but also because of its economic dependence on the oil and gas industry.
The district covers the southern half of the state -- an area roughly as big as the state of Pennsylvania. The largest city in the district is Las Cruces, but its population is spread across a number of smaller towns, military bases and rural areas. Most notably, the eastern portion of the district is one of the major oil and gas producing hubs in the United States -- and the industry holds significant sway over both district and statewide politics.
Both Teague and Pearce are products of that part of the district and both made their fortune in the oil industry.
When Teague ran for office last year, he supported policies that did not put him inline with much of the Democratic leadership, supporting increased domestic drilling on- and offshore, opposing a windfall profit tax on oil companies, and increasing the use of nuclear power. But Teague also favored several policies that are key cogs of the Democratic energy agenda -- favoring a renewable electricity mandate and boosting tax incentives for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
Teague has used much that same argument to explain his backing of the House climate bill, which he says would not do anything to damage the conventional fossil-fuel based industries in his state while opening the door for development of renewable power and other technologies.
Notably, Teague has pointed to a provision that he helped insert into the House climate bill that provided for extra emissions allowance for small refiners that went above what was already provided for the industry as a whole. More than a dozen refiners, a few of which operate in Teague's district, then sent a letter to Congress voicing their support for the legislation and a number of them have contributed to Teague's campaign.
But in recent months, some of those officials have made public statements indicating they still have deep concerns about the legislation, and the trade group representing the industry has likewise criticized the Senate version of the legislation.
"When he tried to justify his vote and he pointed out about the refineries -- everyone knows that will be removed in conference," said Noon of Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy. "He sold his soul for nothing. What he put in there is going to be stripped out anyway. It's over for Harry Teague."
Teague admits that the bill is not perfect, but he also has argued that it will not harm the state's extractive industries and in fact will provide additional opportunities for economic development.
"I am not naive enough to think this energy bill is the solution to all our energy problems or that it is without flaws, but the fact is that we have waited too long to get serious about ending our dependence on foreign oil," Teague said. "Not only does this bill take a first step to make our country energy independent, it also provides some unique economic opportunities to a state like New Mexico, which is rich in prospects for expanded production of both conventional and new energy sources."
Beyond touting the refinery provisions, the freshman congressman has also held a constant string of town hall forums and other meetings with constituents -- his office says he has been back in the district all but three weekends since the start of the year.
And more recently the White House has gone to bat for Teague, with Vice President Joe Biden attending a fundraising event for Teague and the other New Mexico House Democrats yesterday and with two other major administration officials -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Energy Secretary Steven Chu -- also hosting fundraising events for Teague in recent months.
During his appearance in the state last month, Chu spoke at a conference at New Mexico State University -- which is located in Teague's district -- where he praised Teague for his support on the climate issue and said that New Mexico can be a leader in overhauling the nation's energy portfolio toward greater use of renewables.
Additionally, environmentalists have pointed to a recent poll commissioned by the Pew Environment Group which showed that 69 percent of voters in Teague's district would support an energy bill that would require companies to reduce carbon emission while mandating electric utilities generate 20 percent of their electricity for the renewable energy sources.
The poll, however, makes no mention of the possibility that those policies would drive up costs for consumers -- something that is a major theme of both the Pearce campaign and broader GOP criticisms of the cap-and-trade bill.
Too much to overcome?
Indeed, both critics and observers say it appears that cap and trade remains the biggest strike against Teague's re-election hopes, especially in a tough economic climate where voters are deeply concerned about any policies that may be detrimental to their pocket books.
"Republican have been effective in their message, which has been simple -- some would say overly simple -- and Teague has had a hard time responding to it," Haussamen said.
Haussamen added that responding to concerns over the climate bill has been particularly difficult due to the nature of Teague's district, which lacks a single dominant media market and hence makes it hard for politicians to use the airwaves to get their message out. That circumstance puts a significant amount of power into the hands of individuals that have historically been politically active, and in the case of New Mexico's 2nd District, the means the oil and gas producers.
"They're certainly not the only voters or the only people that have sway over the voters, but they do have a lot of influence," Haussamen said.
Both the Teague and Pearce camps do point out that while nationally the district is known as an oil and gas hub, its political base is far broader than that. Las Cruces is the major population hub and has trended increasingly Democratic in recent years. Many other voters are also closely linked to agricultural interests.
For the two campaigns that means two different things.
For Teague it may be an opportunity to build up support in an area that is not so closely tied to the energy industry and potentially win re-election even if he loses the energy industry portion of his district. Pearce's campaign sees those areas as yet another avenue for its overarching message, giving the challenger a chance to cast cap and trade as damaging not only for industry but for consumers and small businesses.
And Teague's critics point to his recent vote against the House health care bill as a major sign that the issue continues to haunt the freshman Democrat, arguing that the congressman potentially voted against the bill in order to avoid casting two votes that may be wildly unpopular with many voters back home.
"His vote on health care is indicative that he is still dealing with fallout from the cap-and-trade vote," said Ciaramitaro of the Pearce campaign. Adding, "Is he going to vote the Democratic line until he feels endangered?"
Teague is one of 16 House Democrats to split their vote in such a manner -- voting in favor of the cap-and-trade bill but not in favor of the health care legislation. But, at least for now, observers say that may not be quite enough to silence the criticism over the climate measure or squelch concern that he has been politically out of step with the district.
"The conservatives still say you were disingenuous on health care, cap-and-trade bill proves you're a liberal, and our district is not," Haussamen said. "That argument is not possible without the cap-and-trade vote."