Caring about environment is 'default' position in 3 tight House races

Washington state boasts one of the only temperate rainforests in the world, one of the world's largest inland water systems at the Puget Sound, and the fourth largest river in the United States.

Washington residents, many of whom are hikers and bikers, spend a lot of time outdoors. And many voters care about the environment, according to a recent survey of registered voters in southwest Washington, commissioned by two environmental groups. Seventy-three percent said conservation is important when considering whether to support a political candidate.

But even in Washington, jobs and government spending, rather than the environment, have dominated the dialogue in the three close U.S. House races.

"I don't think environmental issues are at all in play in defining any of the candidates," said Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant based in Seattle. "You hardly hear the two words 'global warming.'"

Yet you cannot have an anti-environmental stance in Washington and expect to win a major election, according to Stuart Elway, an independent Seattle-based pollster.


"The pro, or environmental, side is kind of the default," Elway said.

Still, environmental groups have taken sides and are attempting to influence the outcome in the three close House races.

The Sierra Club has endorsed Rep. Rick Larsen (D) for re-election in the 2nd District and Democratic hopeful Denny Heck for the open 3rd District seat, and the club has a full-time organizer working for Heck's campaign. In the 8th District, Republicans for the Environment and the League of Conservation Voters have endorsed moderate GOP Rep. Dave Reichert, one of just eight House Republicans who voted for the 2009 cap-and-trade bill.

"It's not the same level of priority that you saw in 2008," said Sierra Club deputy national field director Bill Arthur. "Having said that, there is still a strong and clear connection between creating a clean energy economy and how that's going to both help the environment and address climate change and simultaneously be a significant creator of new jobs."

It is the jobs approach that Heck, a former state legislator and broadcasting executive, has taken in the 3rd District, where he is trailing state Rep. Jaime Herrera (R) for the open House seat in southwest Washington that has belonged to Rep. Brian Baird (D) for a dozen years. Baird is retiring at the end of this term.

Heck, who promises to "give 'em Heck" in Washington, D.C., emphasizes renewable energy technologies that he says would create jobs in Washington state. He said he hopes to train a work force to develop wind farms along the Columbia River Gorge and help support local technology companies, like one in Vancouver, Wash., that is developing LED lighting.

"Denny is a person who we believe genuinely sees that there isn't a conflict between good environmental policy and the right ingredients for economic growth," Arthur said.

Arthur said that wind farms have had a tangible economic benefit in the rural part of the state because it is mostly farmers and ranchers who receive lease payments for wind towers. The Port of Vancouver also receives a large portion of the country's imported wind turbines, so that "barging or trucking them into the interior is also creating jobs," Arthur said.

Heck's opponent Herrera, a former aide to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), has "pointed to energy efficiency as something that she would like to work on should she get elected but really hasn't made the kind of jobs case as Denny Heck," said Beth Doglio, campaign director in Olympia, Wash., at Climate Solutions, one of the organizations that commissioned the voter survey in the region.

Herrera has denounced federal spending in general, and the cap-and-trade legislation specifically. She signed Americans for Prosperity's "No Climate Tax Pledge" that opposes "legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue" and has said she is skeptical that humans are causing climate change.

The sheriff vs. the exec

The cap-and-trade bill is more of an issue, though, in the 8th District, where the Democrat, Suzan DelBene, a former corporate vice president of Microsoft Corp., is running close to Reichert, a three-term incumbent, in a district that has been held by moderate Republicans for all of its history. The 8th District, just outside of Seattle, voted Democratic in the both the 2008 and 2004 presidential elections.

Reichert made a name for himself as sheriff of King County, where the so-called Green River Killer, who is believed to have murdered almost 50 women in Washington in the 1980s, was arrested under his watch. Reichert rode the sheriff label in his first House win, "but now he's established a record there in this district," Elway said. "He does have a reputation of being a little bit more friendly to the environment than most Republicans."

In addition to voting for cap and trade, Reichert also voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

"We are proud to endorse Congressman Reichert for re-election because he supports policies that will not only build a clean energy economy that gets Washington's workers back on the job but will also reduce our dependence on foreign oil and curb harmful pollution," said League of Conservation Voters Action Fund President Gene Karpinski in a statement announcing the league's endorsement.

But an audio recording made at a Republican gathering in May raised some eyebrows when Reichert said that in order to win in the 8th District, "you have got to pick your battles. ... There are certain moves, chess pieces, strategies you have to employ."

He went on to imply that his pro-environment votes were just part of that strategy and that "I've taken [environmentalists] out of the game in this district. They're out."

Some environmentalists were livid.

"Dave Reichert is really a fake environmentalist," said Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute. "He's not interested in helping [environmentalists]. He just wants to keep them from supporting his opponent."

The Sierra Club was split between whether to endorse Reichert or DelBene, Arthur said, adding that while the audio recording "ruffled some feathers for sure," he still believes that Reichert is genuine in his interest in the environment. "I think he was trying to be clever in a place that you shouldn't try to be clever, and it didn't come off very well," he said.

DelBene tried to use the comment to help define Reichert as a "right winger in moderate clothing" and to make the point that the congressman is not what he appears to be, Butterworth said, adding that voters now seem to have moved on -- especially since Reichert received the LCV endorsement.

No 'love lost' in 2nd District

In the 2nd District, which runs along the Puget Sound and inland north to the Canadian border, Larsen is facing a tight race in a rematch with Snohomish County Councilman John Koster (R) -- "a tea partier before they invented the term," as Arthur calls him.

Koster, a former dairy farmer, lost narrowly to Larsen in 2000 when the House seat was last open. A former state legislator, Koster has been endorsed by conservative icons like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In his TV ads, Koster accuses Larsen of running a negative campaign, siding with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the "wasteful stimulus" and outsourcing, which "creates jobs for the Chinese, not us."

"I don't think there's any love lost" between the two candidates, Elway said.

Koster opposes cap and trade. "I have grave concerns with the staggering costs of Cap-and-Trade regulations and their potential to cripple our struggling economy," he said on his website.

"In the state Legislature, he repeatedly voted against environmental protections, the establishment of environmental standards," Arthur said. "At one point he even voted for a provision in legislation that would have allowed for landfills to be put over aquifers."

Larsen, Arthur said, was a prime sponsor of the 2008 Wild Sky Wilderness designation, a major addition to Washington wilderness.

Larsen also voted for the House climate bill but not before making sure the bill "removes the unworkable low-carbon fuel standard" to help protect "good-paying jobs" at Washington's oil refineries and gives those companies 2 percent allowances, according to a statement he made at the time of the bill's passage. He emphasized that the bill will create jobs for Washington, which keys in to the focus of this year's election.

Despite the myriad environmental endorsements, "I can't tell you the last time there was an environmental issue that was at the top of somebody's list" during the campaign, said Bob Moore, a Republican pollster who specializes in West Coast races. "The issues are pretty much the same in each district. It's a matter of jobs, it's a matter of the economy, it's the federal government's reaction to all of that."

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