Midterms 2018: Pre-election roundup on Dems taking the House, environmental priorities

Reporters Geof Koss, Robin Bravender and Nick Bowlin provide last minute input on what could happen if Democrats take the House (oversight, infrastructure and subpoenas) and expectations from environmental groups who have poured a record high amount of cash into this election. Hosted by E&E Daily Editor Manuel Quiñones.

Manuel Quiñones: Hey, everyone, we've meeting here to discuss E&E News's coverage of the midterm elections, and we're just hours away from the first results coming in, so we wanted to talk to some of the folks covering the races about, you know, their last-minute impressions. Nick Bowlin has been doing great work throughout the months, actually years coming into the voting today. What are some thoughts that you have?

Nick Bowlin: Well, I think tomorrow night some of the early returns that are going to come in that'll be important are the Pennsylvania suburban House districts. Scott Perry and Brian Fitzpatrick are two House Republicans that have endangered and have been pretty significant Democratic targets this fall. And if they go down early in the night, I think that'll be a good bellwether that it'll be a good night for the blue team. We're also looking at some of the House races where climate, environment issues have been more important. I'll be paying close attention to the South Carolina 1st District, which is historically, I think they haven't had a Democratic representatives in decades. But thanks to Mark Sanford being unseated in the primary by a very Trump-aligned Republican named Katie Arrington, her offshore drilling stances have gotten her in trouble, and a Democrat named Joe Cunningham has made the race very competitive. And if he wins, offshore drilling will have been the issue that turned the race, so I'll be paying attention to that.

Manuel Quiñones: And are you expecting to know kind of if there, if this blue wave is really materializing early in the night or are we going to have to wait until really late or maybe Wednesday morning?

Nick Bowlin: I think we're going to have to wait, especially because, I mean, unless it's just, unless it's just a rout. Some of those California House seats which will, one, come in late and, two, I mean, the margins might be really, really close and we might not know for hours or days. So I'm expecting it to be a late night, but who knows. We'll find out.

Manuel Quiñones: So Geof Koss has been covering action more on the Senate side, and you wrote a preview for E&E Daily on some expectations there. What's the bottom line?

Geof Koss: Well, I think the conventional wisdom right now, and has been for some time, is that the Republicans are going to maintain control of the Senate, probably have a slim majority. What the final majority is is unclear, but we'll be looking for all the red state Democrats -- Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Claire McCaskill in Missouri -- see how they do. There's a chance that there's a couple of other races that really, I mean, if they were to go Democrats' way, they could really even take the Senate. We've got Tennessee, where Phil Bredesen has been polling pretty strongly against Marsha Blackburn, although the recent averages shows her with, up by a few points. There's also Texas, of course, with Beto O'Rourke, who's become this political rock star. Whether or not that translates into actually votes on the ground by Texans who can vote, it remains to be seen, but I think it's notable that he hasn't taken the lead in any of the polls. He's got a lot of attention, but is that going to mean anything at the end of the day when it comes to the vote counting? I don't know. Also Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema is slightly ahead of Martha McSally right now, and that would be really notable because, you know, Jeff Flake and John McCain have been sort of the independent Republican senators there for many years so, you know, the possibility of a Democrat taking that is pretty significant as well.

Manuel Quiñones: And Robin Bravender, you've been really focused on the oversight that Democrats are likely to conduct if they take over, particularly the House. You know, what are some thoughts going into the results coming in?

Robin Bravender: If Democrats win the House, the heads of President Trump's agencies are going to spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill. We saw that in 2010 when House Republicans took back over. I think then EPA's Lisa Jackson was up there in February and was a frequent witness on Capitol Hill that year, so we're going to see Andrew Wheeler from EPA, we're going to see Ryan Zinke up on the Hill quite a bit. Rick Perry will probably be up there too, although the hostility towards his energy policies doesn't seem to be quite as intense as it is toward Wheeler and Zinke from the Democrats, but it'll be busy up there.

Manuel Quiñones: Are we expecting more focus on Zinke? It seemed that there was so much of a focus on Scott Pruitt at EPA. Will things turn?

Robin Bravender: Yeah. I mean, certainly in the headlines today there are new ethics allegations against Zinke, so he does seem to be a big target. I mean, EPA is a perennial target for whoever's in charge. So Andrew Wheeler will be up there regardless, but Scott Pruitt is the one who at EPA really got in the ethics trouble. So he's gone, it's unclear whether or not Democrats are going to want to bring him up again. Wheeler probably won't face that same criticism. He'll face criticism about regulatory rollbacks from the left, and Zinke will be a prime target up there.

Manuel Quiñones: And one more question for you. You know, you mentioned DOE and Secretary Perry. Is he going to keep getting an easier ride up on the Hill or are they going to find something to come after him?

Robin Bravender: They'll find something to go after him on. You know, he hasn't attracted the same scrutiny on ethics grounds. The thing that he's probably going to get grilled on is President Trump's plans for coal. So Perry will be up there testifying on what DOE plans to do about that in efforts to keep coal plants alive. But by and large, he seems to have a good rapport with lawmakers better than some of his colleagues.

Manuel Quiñones: Now, Geof, going back to you, you know, we talk a lot about politics and oversight, you know, on policy issues. Any thoughts on what could happen with, in Congress next year if Democrats take over the House but Republicans keep the Senate?

Geof Koss: Well, I think from an oversight perspective, as Robin said, there's going to be a ton of oversight across many committees, including possibly the revival of the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence, which former Speaker Nancy Pelosi created in 2007 and then the Republicans killed it in 2011. Now, there's a question whether or not that committee, if it comes back, whether or not it would actually have any legislative authority or if it would just be sort of an oversight committee, which can sort of have hearings and highlight some of the issues. But that in itself can be useful.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, I think, is going to have its hands pretty full because their jurisdiction includes healthcare and a lot of other things, so some of that work could be shifted over there. And then, of course, Natural Resources Committee is going to have plenty of stuff to look at at the Interior Department as well.

I think it's a little early to say what could happen legislatively, but I think one area that I know House Democrats have been looking at as a possible area of cooperation is infrastructure because President Trump wanted to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, and I think at the end of the day, the only thing they're going to get out of this Congress is the water resources development, which is a smaller piece of that, but that passed with broad bipartisan support. But part of the problem is that the Republicans just don't want to come up with the money to pay for anything. I think if there's a Republican Senate, which is what is expected right now, I think the House, they're going to find the House Democrats are going to be much more willing to come up with some revenue-raisers, you know, raising the gas tax or something or carbon tax. Just kidding, but you know, to actually put some money out there to pay for this stuff.

So that's one area to watch. And also an infrastructure bill would sort of give an opening for Democrats to pursue sort of smaller climate policies like building resilience, you know, into the planning process and whatnot.

Robin Bravender: It'll be interesting to see if Democrats do the same sort of messaging bills that Republicans did in 2010, which were just messaging against President Obama's agenda. There was a bill to approve Keystone, there was a bill to disapprove of EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, but I haven't heard much about Democrats that are taking that same technique and sort of teeing things up in case a Democrat wins in 2020.

Geof Koss: Well, actually, I had a conversation with Henry Waxman last week, the former chairman of the Oversight Government Reform Committee and then later the Energy and Commerce Committee, and his thoughts were that, assuming there's a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, that Democrats would be wise to sort of look for targeted approaches on climate change and other environmental issues and do that rather than throwing the, in doing, sort of laying the foundation for a better political climate for moving legislation at a later date. So I don't know if we'll see much of the messaging that we saw when the Republicans were in charge.

Manuel Quiñones: And then, Nick, going back to you, and giving you the last word before we wrap up, what's the perspective among environmentalists? I know you write a lot about the environmental community and the advocacy groups. Are they expecting, if Democrats take over the House to come victorious and get a lot of things done or are they bound to be disappointed at someone?

Nick Bowlin: I think they're pretty clear about what they can reasonably expect. They talk a lot about oversight into investigations into Zinke and Pruitt and Wheeler of various sorts. And then they, I have talked to some environmental groups that bring up messaging bills. I've heard mentioned Tulsi Gabbard's "OFF Act" and then there's a Sanders-Markey bill that would put the U.S. on 100 percent renewables by 2050. And Cory Booker, both Sanders and Booker were on that bill, and that's been mentioned as one that, you know, people who have their eye on 2020 could push and then run on.

Geof Koss: I think we will see a lot of that, but the question is whether or not the Democratic leadership gets behind this.

Manuel Quiñones: So last question. Do we think that the blue wave is coming, or is it still too early to say?

Nick Bowlin: If I had to guess, I would say yes. I don't think it'll be a big margin, but yes.

Geof Koss: I think it's coming in the House for sure, and I'd be surprised if it swept into the Senate, but we'll see.

Robin Bravender: I'm not counting on Democrats taking the House yet. We'll see.

Manuel Quiñones: Interesting. We'll see. Thanks. So now we're going to focus on watching the returns. Tonight we have a significant team here at E&E News focused on what happens and what it means, and we have an interactive map that we've spent a couple weeks working on to organize our coverage leading up to the midterms and of the results, so check that out at eenews.net. Just go to the right side of the page where there's a button that says "Reports." Just click on there and it'll take you to our reports page for Campaign 2018. So thank you so much for joining us.