A group of Democrats who defied their party to oppose a landmark climate bill last year is facing attacks by political challengers from an unexpected direction: Cap and trade is being used against them, despite the fact that they voted no.
Forty-four Democrats broke ranks last summer on the muscular measure seeking to create a carbon limit for thousands of factories and power plants. Many of them represent districts striped with coal veins, or in conservative pockets of the country where congressional seats shift parties like a manual transmission.
Now, those districts could help decide who controls the House. Most of them are fertile ground for Republican challenges; many could change hands. And cap and trade, despite efforts to avert it, is arriving like an uninvited guest in some of them.
That includes the northern notch of West Virginia. The state's first congressional district is positioned with a narrow handle between Ohio and Pennsylvania. It is rippled with leafy ridges and few roads, and energy politics runs strong. It's also home to one of only two lawmakers in the group of 44 who lost their primary this year.
Rep. Alan Mollohan, who has held the seat for 28 years, lost in a bitter upset to state Sen. Mike Oliverio, a conservative Democrat who highlighted a years-long investigation by the Department of Justice into alleged connections between Mollohan's campaign finances and congressional earmarks. The investigation ended this spring without charges.
Cap and trade also played a part. Oliverio suggested that Mollohan could have done more than just vote against the climate bill that narrowly passed the House in June 2009. It was an approach that resonates in West Virginia: The congressman, it suggested, had failed to adequately defend the coal community.
Mollohan says Republican messaging out of Washington went even further. It changed history, telling local reporters that the congressman voted for cap and trade, Mollohan said. When that was corrected, the attack was reshaped to say he voted no at the last minute, with the approval of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
"The message was not true," Mollohan said in an interview. "But you had a press who was really complicit. Thrice repeated in the press, and it becomes the propagandist's successful lie."
Say it loud: This Dem is against cap and trade
Now the focus is on Oliverio, who has gone from criticizing the carbon policy in the primary to being attacked for belonging to the party that supports it in the general election.
"Cap and trade should be huge in this campaign. I don't know where Mike [Oliverio] is on that, and I really don't care," said Republican David McKinley, a former West Virginia lawmaker who beat five primary opponents in May to become the GOP nominee.
"Our fight is not with Mike Oliverio," he added. "Our fight is a fight for this country and whether Nancy Pelosi or [Republican Ohio Rep.] John Boehner is going to be speaker [of the House]. That's what it's come down to. This isn't about us anymore."
The accusations have prompted Oliverio's campaign to strongly denounce emissions caps as an economy-crippling mechanism. The strategy appears to be an effort to avoid the issue erosion that allowed Mollohan to be attacked on carbon markets.
"Let me be very clear: Mike Oliverio is against cap and trade," said Curtis Wilkerson, his campaign manager, adding that he is bracing for television ads from the McKinley campaign on the topic this fall. "They have been making things up left and right."
That is the case in several swing districts held by Democrats in the group of 44, all of whom opposed cap and trade. Republican challengers are expanding the race to national proportions, accusing the incumbents of failing to alter the liberal agenda of their party in Washington. The result, they warn, could increase local utility costs and decrease jobs in high-energy manufacturing sectors -- the same arguments that members of the 44 often voiced.
Alabama's 2nd congressional district is one of them. Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright captured the open seat in 2008 with the help of President Obama's victory wave, giving Democrats a swing district coveted by both parties.
Running against Pelosi and freezing children
It's now back in play. And Republican candidate Martha Roby plans to highlight cap and trade as an example of the Democrats' "job killing" agenda.
"While Bobby Bright may have been allowed to vote against the bill, it's still his party that is pushing the agenda," Roby said in an e-mail sent by her campaign manager. "With Nancy Pelosi in charge, we can expect Cap and Trade and more to come down [the] pike."
In Indiana's 2nd congressional district, which Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly captured from Republicans in 2006, there are suggestions that the carbon program could affect children's comfort and education. Donnelly voted against cap and trade.
"This is one area that will absolutely decimate Hoosier families every time," Jackie Walorski, a state lawmaker who captured the GOP nomination, says in a video on her website. "Think about it. Every time a winter storm comes in and your heat goes up; every time you try to keep your kids warm at night; every time you try to invest in quality tools for their education, the cost has the potential to quadruple."
Donnelly's campaign is retaliating by linking Walorski with stridently conservative members of the Republican Party, a move meant to distance her from the district's centrist voters, who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama four years later.
"Walorski is very, very conservative," one campaign adviser said privately, comparing her to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is sometimes colorfully outspoken, and other Republicans who "just say no."
Cap and trade is just one issue being used by Republicans. Votes expanding health care insurance and enacting the expensive economic stimulus program are playing high-profile roles, as well. All of them are expected to help Republicans gain seats in November, perhaps pushing them into the majority.
The GOP needs to win 40 seats to gain control. That's within reach, according to the Cook Political Report, which estimates that Republicans will pick up between 32 and 42 seats.