The Nevada Senate race has seen people in chicken suits, innuendo around Scientology, and attacks on "Obamacare." This rabid attention could soon be focused on climate legislation, as Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the state and the Senate, considers launching a carbon debate in the midst of his tough re-election effort.
His decision, expected early next month, could provide a new angle of attack for Republican opponents seeking to end Reid's 24-year career in the chamber amid swelling voter dissatisfaction with incumbency. Reid, a former boxer, trails top Republican candidates in polls, including "tea party" favorite Sharron Angle, who believes Senate attempts to price carbon emissions would embolden her conservative supporters.
"Even though they've changed the name of this bill, it still looks like cap and trade; it still looks like taxing people for their energy use," she said of a proposal by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). "It still looks like an effort to tax the people more, and [a] big government takeover."
The former state Assembly member is locked in a primary fight with past state Sen. Sue Lowden, the GOP's preferred candidate and a previous state chairwoman of the Republican Party. Angle surged in polling and fundraising after receiving the endorsement of the Tea Party Express in April, throwing her into a dead heat with Lowden. Both lead Reid by about 10 points in polling as they approach the June 8 Republican primary.
That same week, Reid is expected to take stock of the climate legislation by speaking with committee chairmen. It's unclear if Reid will begin debate on the Kerry-Lieberman bill, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gases by charging fees on thousands of factories and utilities for releasing carbon dioxide, if the legislation fails to attract the support of a few Republicans. None have stepped forward so far.
Pushing the bill forward might be difficult in an atmosphere of vocal conservatism that has pushed anti-tax candidates into leading roles in Utah, Kentucky and Florida. Nevada is particularly sensitive to pocketbook criticisms, having a record unemployment rate of 13.7 percent in April.
"It's a tough landscape here," said state Sen. Michael Schneider, a Democrat who chairs an energy committee created to keep abreast of the Obama administration's efforts on renewable power. "We're going to be slow to recover [economically], and the other thing is we're a pretty darn conservative state, and they don't always buy into climate change."
Angle's popularity may reflect those characteristics.
'Not sound science'
She believes federal energy initiatives are unconstitutional and has called for the Department of Energy to be disbanded. She is also calling for an "intensive physical presence" along the nation's southern border to stop illegal immigration. She also believes the United States should withdraw from the United Nations, asserting that it is a bastion of liberal ideology and "the umpire on fraudulent science such as global warming."
"I'm a clean-air proponent," Angle said in an interview. "I don't, however, buy into the whole ... man-caused global warming, man-caused climate change mantra of the left. I believe that there's not sound science to back that up."
Reid doesn't mention climate change on his campaign website, but he frequently promotes the Senate's efforts to create "green jobs," a message that seems to resonate with labor unions. But it appears that Republican candidates might hold a sharper message around the complex Senate plan that seeks to spur those jobs by shifting the nation away from fossil fuels. That would be done, in part, by charging fees to industries for releasing emissions.
That raises questions about how willing Reid is to pursue the Kerry-Lieberman bill when he is politically vulnerable.
"I just don't think [Democrats] have the stomach to try to say how this is a winner," David Damore, an associate political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said of the climate legislation. "The Republicans can say, 'cap and trade, or tax.'"
"I think that message is an easier one [to understand] than, 'Oh, this is going to revitalize Nevada in 20 years,'" he added. "That's something very simple in this very anti-tax environment here."
A spokesman for Reid's campaign, Jon Summers, said in an e-mail that the majority leader is "working to make Nevada the leader in clean energy."
A campaign in which clucking is regulated
Yet Reid might be freed from making the decision about whether to undertake the Kerry-Lieberman bill this year if a few moderate Republicans, like Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, fail to sign on.
"Any legislation would require the support of both Republicans and Democrats alike," Summers said. "Senator Reid will continue his work to reduce our reliance on oil, create jobs and make our country energy-independent by working with senators on both sides of the aisle on legislation that achieves those goals."
Some of those goals could be pursued without capping carbon emissions. A bill already passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, for example, would establish a national renewable electricity standard and encourage energy efficiency initiatives.
President Obama, however, is making it clear that he wants to pursue an aggressive energy bill that addresses climate change. He met with Senate Republicans yesterday in the Capitol seeking their support for several initiatives, including what White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called two "major" priorities: an overhaul of the immigration system and energy and climate legislation.
"Twice in the last five days we've seen the president thump the bully pulpit to urge Senate action" on climate legislation, Sen. Kerry said in a statement. "We have to leverage this moment to get something comprehensive done this year."
Reid will be surveying the Senate landscape as Nevada Republicans choose their candidate for the November election. Early voting began on Saturday, following a tumultuous month for Lowden, a long-ago debutante who has been assailed by Democrats for a gaffe in which she expressed support for the past practice of bartering for health care. She mentioned trading chickens for treatment.
Opposing campaign workers began appearing publicly in chicken costumes, prompting state election officials to issue a warning that clucking activists would be barred from polling places.
Climate bill linked to tax burden
Lowden's campaign said she was unavailable for an interview. A spokeswoman issued an e-mailed statement in which Lowden said, "Radical changes in how we find, produce and use energy can add a further burden to our economy -- and our ability to compete in the global economy."
Lowden did not answer a question about whether she believes climate change is occurring.
Nevada Democrats interviewed for this article hope that Angle wins the primary, an outcome that could limit the role of Republican operatives and fundraising in the general election.
"Sharron Angle is very narrow in focus and very, very conservative, to the point where I think a lot of Republicans will move to Senator Reid rather than vote for Sharron Angle," said one Democratic political coordinator with a labor union.
Angle is facing a rising series of attacks from Lowden, including a television ad that suggests Angle is affiliated with Scientology, a religious philosophy founded by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. The ad claims that Angle, a southern Baptist, sought to provide massages for prison inmates, a practice the ad alleges is connected to the offbeat philosophy.
Nevada's Republican Party, meanwhile, is playing it safe by not choosing candidates. State Sen. Mark Amodei, the party chairman, said Angle is often a contender in GOP primaries, including in 2006, when she narrowly missed becoming the Republican candidate for the U.S. House.
"With the way the wind's blowing -- and especially with the way the wind's blowing in Nevada -- I think it'll be very competitive regardless of who comes out of that [primary]," he predicted.