2014 Midterms: Congressional Elections and the Obama Climate Legacy

Editor’s Note: As part of the 2014 Midterm Elections Series, experts across Brookings will weigh in on issues that are central to this year’s campaigns, how the candidates are engaging those topics, and what will shape policy for the next two years. In this post, William Antholis and Han Chen discuss the importance of climate and energy issues on the primaries, and how the results might influence future domestic and international climate policy. This post is also crossposted on the FixGov blog.

Waves of dollars are flooding congressional campaigns on the issue of climate change, on both sides of the aisle.  The funding follows the general partisan division on the issue. But the greatest impact may not be on the election itself, but rather on what happens to President Obama’s Climate Change legacy, both at home and abroad.


According to a study by Brookings’ Center for Effective Public Management that tracks the major issues raised in this year’s primary races, Democrats emphasized Obamacare, climate change, the minimum wage, immigration and taxes. Republicans emphasized Obamacare, taxes, the debt, regulations, and immigration.

More than half of House Democratic candidates supported efforts to combat climate change and/or the EPA during the primaries. It was the second most frequent topic after Obamacare. Less than 1 percent of Democratic candidates opposed efforts to cut greenhouse gases (often referred to as “mitigation”), while 3 percent had a complicated position and 46 percent did not provide information on their stance. Among Republicans House candidates, on the other hand, only two percent supported mitigation, 29 percent opposed EPA overreach or stated doubts about the science of climate change publicly, 9 percent had a complicated position, while over 60 percent of House Republican candidates did not mention the issue.

A Pew poll from September 2014 revealed that the environment ranked only 8th out of 11 issues among registered voters. But the poll also showed that among Democratic voters, 69% rank the environment as “very important” to their vote, compared to only 36% of Republicans. That gap is likely to close. In the last few weeks, energy and environment have become increasingly prominent in Congressional races across the country. Political ads that mention energy, climate change and the environment have reached their highest levels ever, mostly due to energy industry and environmental advocacy groups, but increasingly candidates themselves. On top of that, millions of dollars are being spent by megadonors like Tom Steyer to support candidates (all Democrats) who pledge to combat global warming, and the countervailing money is being spent by the Koch brothers on candidates (all Republican) who oppose EPA regulations.

Across Partisan Lines

That simple partisan breakdown covers a more complicated reality. In several critical Congressional races, Democrats oppose carbon emissions mitigation or other climate policies, or at least downplay their support for those policies. Likewise, at least eight Republicans in Congress are on record in believing the science of climate change. Not to mention, 60 percent of House Republican candidates studied in the Brookings Primaries Project did not take a clear position on the issue, suggesting that perhaps they were sympathetic to the climate issue, but were unwilling to bring it up in the primaries. Indeed, as the issue moves from election season to the next session of Congress, the big question is what the agenda and balance of power will be between the pro-climate-action and anti-EPA forces.

For instance, in Louisiana, Democratic senator Mary Landrieu campaigns on her chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources committee and how that can help the state increase oil and gas drilling. Climate policy will not endear her to voters in a state with a strong oil and gas sector. Her statements put distance between her and President Obama’s climate plan. Alaska Senator Mark Begich, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are just a few of the Democrats who have complicated views on climate policy. For Begich, he doubts it will be a major factor in his bid for reelection. On the other hand, Republican candidate Carl DeMaio in San Diego has acknowledged that climate change is happening—perhaps because most residents of the city believe that climate change is happening, and there are fewer climate skeptics in the area. Kansas independent candidate Greg Orman and South Dakota independent Larry Pressler have acknowledged man-made climate change, with Orman voicing support for local wind power development versus an incumbent who favors the Keystone XL pipeline.

So what does this mean for life after the midterm elections? While much of the attention remains on Obamacare, climate change is one area where Democratic candidates may benefit from the shifting public opinion. Fewer and fewer Americans doubt that humans are contributing to climate change. Against this backdrop, Republican candidates still tend to avoid the topic, or to question the extent of climate change from human behavior. Their ire still seems focused on the EPA rules—and whether Republican control of both houses of Congress can do anything to stop the rules from going into effect.

A New Congress: What’s Next? Domestic and Global Implications

Despite Democrats’ traditional support for climate action, they were unable to pass comprehensive greenhouse gas legislation when they controlled both houses of Congress from 2009-2011. Given that, it is certain that no new climate change legislation will happen anytime soon. If Republicans take over both houses of Congress, they will have to decide how hard they will try to undermine President Obama’s decision to move forward and regulate greenhouse gases by executive authority—that is, letting the EPA regulations move forward.

Republican control of the Senate, in particular, would likely lead to more intrusive and time consuming hearings on the EPA, its funding, and the nature of climate regulations. There could be increased efforts to defund the EPA. House and Senate Republicans could make another attempt to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2011, for example, the Republican-controlled house approved an amendment to eliminate funding for the EPA, which they attached to the Fiscal Year 2011 Continuing Resolution (the appropriations bill that funds federal departments, agencies and programs for a short time until a regular budget can be passed.) Republicans have also succeeded at making deep cuts to the EPA’s overall budget in the last few years.

Despite all of this opposition, however, Presidential action has begun that will likely still set the agenda for the next two years. Any legislation to defund EPA would be unlikely to pass given the prospects of a Democratic Senate filibuster. Even if it passed, the president would be likely to veto. And that could benefit Democrats in 2016, since opinion polling suggests these actions are not only popular among core Democratic voters, but among moderate voters who tend to believe the science of climate change, and who are in favor of measured action in the face of potential threats.

This back and forth will also have international implications. As the United States prepares for the major UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Paris next year, it goes in with a stronger hand than in previous years because it is taking action. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, along with regulations for energy efficiency and automobile fuel economy standards, have done what many countries had not believed to be possible—the regulations have cut American emissions dramatically. Not only that, these executive actions have demonstrated to others around the world that the US has a high level of ambition when it comes to climate action. This is the message that we need to continue sending, particularly to other large emitters such as the EU, China and India in the months leading up to the 2015 summit.

If, however, Congressional Republicans succeed in undermining the President’s EPA authority, that negotiating strength would be reduced. The President could be faced with an unfunded or poorly funded EPA, not to mention large congressional delegations of Republicans on the sidelines in Paris. This would undermine the faith of other climate diplomats that the U.S. will live up to its greenhouse gas reduction pledges and other commitments in the negotiations.