The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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The Climate of Congress

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the necessity of a nation-wide push to put climate-sane people in Congress and in state and local government, not just the White House (though the White House is critical, too). At the time, I did not know whether such a push was in progress. I simply hadn’t looked into it, yet. Now, I’m happy to report that the League of Conservation Voters has things well in hand. They could use donations, though. For more information, read their Plan of Action, here.

I also said I’d write a series about which races are actually important for climate. I’ll start with the Senate.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) lists several states where they are targeting Senate races. They also, helpfully, provide environmental voting scorecards on all legislators, meaning that if someone has served in the Senate or House already, we don’t need to rely on his or her campaign promises, we can just look at a score derived from the actual voting record.

As I’ve explained before, this blog is neutral on all issues besides climate. I understand you might have additional concerns, and so do I, but we’re ignoring those for the purpose of this discussion.

US Senate

34 Senate seats are up for election this year, ten of which are currently held by Democrats. The Democrats need to hold all ten and gain five more, in order to take control of the Senate (if Clinton wins the Presidency, the Democrats can win the Senate with only four additional seats, as Vice President Tim Kaine will have the tie-breaking vote).

Fortunately, that’s doable. Only two of the ten contested Democrat seats are considered vulnerable, according to the Cook Report, and one of those races is currently considered “likely” to go Democrat. Meanwhile, eight of the Republican seats up for election are considered “toss-ups,” and two others only “lean” Republican. Three more are considered “likely” to go Republican, but are still competitive.

There are some complications. For example, Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, is one of only four Republicans who voted last year to affirm that yes, humans are causing climate change (the others are Susan Collins, of Maine, Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, and Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, none of whom are up for re-election). Her lifetime score is 35%, which is pretty dreadful, but it’s better than many of her fellow Republicans’, and her score for last year alone was much higher–56%. So she’s getting better. Party membership alone does not guarantee a person’s stance on climate, and we do need to foster a genuine Conservative environmentalism, as I have argued before. So, we can’t just say Republicans, bad, Democrats, good. We have to look at candidates individually.

LCV’s list of target states is Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. First two are the two Democrat seats that are competitive. The other six are currently Republican.

So, who are these people? What is happening in these races?


Democratic incumbent, Michael Bennet, faces Republican Tea Party favorite, Darryl Glenn, who is currently the El Paso County Commissioner. Since Colorado in general leans slightly to the left, current thinking is that Mr. Glenn is too far to the right for the state and cannot unseat Mr. Bennet.

Mr. Bennet’s lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 87%. His record is marred by several anti-environment votes (as opposed to skipped votes), including consistent support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, but many of his environmental votes are in the areas of climate change and clean energy. While he has been roundly criticized by environmentalists for supporting the pipeline, he has been endorsed by both the LCV Action Fund and the NRDC Action Fund. He seems an imperfect but able ally.


Florida’s Democratic primary isn’t until next week (August 30th), and the fight between the front-runners has been negative and nasty. The incumbent Republican is Marco Rubio, His lifetime scorecard with LCV is precisely 6%. He is well-known as a climate denier. Whoever runs against him had better win.


Republican incumbent, Mark Kirk, is facing Democrat Tammy Duckworth. The Cook Report considers the race a “toss-up,” but Illinois leans Democrat, and some thinkers estimate the chance of an upset as very good.

Fortunately for us, Ms. Duckworth is currently a House Rep. so both candidates have LCV score cards. Ms. Duckworth’s lifetime score is 85%, while her score last year is an even better 89%. A note on her scorecard indicates that she missed votes in 2015 while she was on maternity leave but read a statement into the record saying that she would have voted pro-environment had she been there. It is unclear to me what that means about her actual voting history–would her score be even higher had she not been absent? Does her score reflect votes she didn’t actually make? In any case, she’s a climate hawk with good name recognition and a fair shot at winning.

Mr. Kirk has a lifetime score of 57% and a score last year of just 40%. In other words, despite not believing that humans cause climate change, he could be worse. Ms. Duckworth will be better.


This is Senator Harry Reid’s seat, but the Senate Minority Leader is retiring, so the race is open. It’s also the one currently Democratic seat currently considered a toss-up by Cook.

Republican Joe Heck is now a member of the House of Representatives. He is also a member of LCV’s current Dirty Dozen, a list of the 12 elected officials the organization really, really wants to defeat–and thinks it can. LCV doesn’t list people it thinks are hopeless. Not surprisingly, his lifetime score is 6%. Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is currently Nevada’s Attorney General and therefore doesn’t have a voting record LCV can score, but she does have their endorsement.

North Carolina

Republican incumbent, Richard Burr faces two challengers, Democrat Deborah Ross, and Libertarian Sean Haugh. The race is considered a toss-up by the Cook Report. Mr. Burr’s LCV score is a ridiculous 4%–one wonders if perhaps his few pro-environment votes were accidental–so while I haven’t found any figures for Mr. Haugh, he would probably be at least marginally better from our perspective.

Ms. Ross would definitely be better–she won LCV’s endorsement even before winning her state’s primary, and as a member of her state’s legislature, she earned an amazing 95% pro-environment score.


Republican Rob Portman is running for re-election against Democratic challenger, Ted Strickland. This is one of the races the Cook Report considers a toss-up, and while the LCV seems to be getting involved, so have the Koch brothers, through a group called Americans for Prosperity Ohio.

Mr. Portman has a record with the League of Conservation Voters going back to 1993. That means there are Ohioans in their 40’s who have never voted without him being on the ballot. And in all that time he’s racked up a lifetime score of just 20%. His score last year was only 8%, which could mean he’s actively getting worse. But Mr. Strickland also has an LCV score, for while he isn’t in office currently, he has been in the past–he earned 77%. So, while isn’t the world’s fiercest climate hawk, he’s certainly got Mr. Portman beat.

Let’s see if he can win on Election Day, too.


Republican incumbent, Pat Toomey also faces two challengers, Democrat Katie McGinty and Independent, Everett Stern. The race is another toss-up, according to Cook.

Mr. Toomey has a lifetime LCV score of just 7% and his score for 2015 is actually 0%. Not surprisingly, he is another member of the Dirty Dozen–which means LCV considers him beatable.Mr. Stern has no LCV score, not having held previous elected office (his background is in business and advocacy), but he is running on a platform that includes expanded fossil fuel exploitation in Pennsylvania and he is against President Obama’s “constraint” of the industry.

Ms. McGinty doesn’t have an LCV score, either (this apparently would be her first elected office, although she has held appointed positions at both the state and national level for decades), but she did earn its endorsement even before winning her primary.


Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson faces Democratic challenger, Russ Feingold. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the race is a re-match. Mr. Johnson defeated Senator Feingold in 2010. Mr. Johnson is not exactly a climate hawk–his lifetime LCV score is 4%, and his score in 2015 is 0%. He’s another of the Dirty Dozen. Mr. Feingold, meanwhile, earned an incredible 95% back when he was in office. Hopefully, he can get back there, soon.

Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that if all eight of the above-mentioned pro-climate candidates win, the Senate will once again be Democrat-controlled and will have exchanged six climate deniers for six climate hawks. If not all of them win?

The most vulnerable seat is Harry Reid’s since there is no incumbent running. If Joe Heck wins that one and the Democrats win all the others, the Democratic majority holds. If Michael Bennet in Colorado loses as well, Democrats will only retain control of the Senate if their party also wins the White House (which they must, but that’s another issue). There are a few other Republicans who could lose and give the Democrats a larger margin of victory, but it’s unlikely, and anyway I don’t yet know how strong those Democrats are on climate. So, these eight races are the important ones, the ones that need national support in order to get climate-sane people into office.

The winner of the Florida primary, plus Michael Bennet, of Colorado, Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada,  Deborah Ross, of North Carolina, Ted Strickland, of Ohio, Katie McGinty, of Pennsylvania, and Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin–these are the people to watch and support.