Home Energy and Environment “The Climate War” and Why Rick Boucher Lost His Election

“The Climate War” and Why Rick Boucher Lost His Election

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I’m reading a fascinating book by Eric Pooley, “The Climate War”, described in the book’s blurb as a “behind-the-scenes” look at “an American civil war in which trillions of dollars and the fate of the planet are at stake.” I’ll give you my theory regarding one of the main reasons why Boucher lost his reelection, as well as reaction to that theory by Eric Pooley and several “plugged-in” 9th CD residents, at the end of this  (very long) article. But first, here are some excerpts from the book that help explain Boucher’s role in crafting “cap and trade,” aka, Waxman-Markey, aka, H.R. 2454: American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.

For starters, here’s a passage that explains where Boucher was coming from on this issue.

Boucher had concerns of his own. Coal was the biggest industry in his district and produced 80 percent of its power.  People in his district had voted for McCain, and not because they believed in global warming. They tended to think it was a hoax, but Boucher had studied the issue and disagreed. He believed that if coal was going to have a future, it had to find a way to capture and store CO2. By making that happen, legislation could usher in a new golden age for coal. He had to make sure Waxman-Markey became that bill, then persuade the coal and power industries to back it. If he did that, his district would come along. It had reelected him twelve times.

So, right there in a nutshell is Boucher’s thinking on this bill, and it certainly wasn’t one that would make an environmentalist like myself particularly happy. But, as Pooley writes, Boucher “had done painstaking work on how to structure a cap-and-trade program so it wouldn’t punish industry or consumers.” In the end, and from my view this is morally reprehensible, “If it came to choosing between the future of the planet and the future of coal, he would choose coal.”

Which is exactly what Boucher did on this legislation, working closely with coal and coal-fired power industry titans like Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. Among other things, what Boucher worked on was ensuring that “existing coal-fired power plants – and plants that were under construction – would be ‘grandfathered’ in and not subject to the new carbon standards (though they would be bound by the new economy-wide cap).” Boucher got that agreement “early”, then proceeded to work on other aspects of the legislation so that the coal and coal-fired power industry folks would be happy.  

By early May 2009, it was time for the “endgame”, and for Boucher to find out whether the coal and power industries would sign off. Of course, given that Boucher had been in near-constant communication with Rogers and others the entire way, doing pretty much whatever they asked him to do, the outcome wasn’t in much doubt.  And, in the end, some of the “most powerful CEOs in EEI” – “Rogers, David Ratcliffe of the Southern Company, Jeff Sterba of PNM Resoures, John Rowe of Exelon,  and Mike Morris of AEP” – voted unanimously to support the deal. In enthusiastically voting “yes,” Rogers declared, “We’re not going to get a better deal” and “If you do the math, you’re going to make this trade every day.”

In sum, Pooley concludes, “Boucher had collected a breathtaking set of concessions for coal,” including “the weaker 2020 target and the free allowances and the generous offsets that would allow power companies to comply with the law while continuing to burn coal” to “$1 billion a year for ten years for [carbon capture and sequestration] research and development” to “$181 billion worth of bonus allowances to hand utilities that began capturing and storing their carbon dioxide after 2020.”  Boucher won a grab bag/cornucopia of goodies and wish-list items for the coal and coal-fired power industries, and to a large extent they were pleased. Heck, even Dominion Power CEO Thomas F. Farrell II testified (on June 9, 2009) that “the allowance allocation approach in this bill will minimize the economic impact on electricity customers nationwide during the early years of a federal GHG cap-and-trade program. It also will help ensure that utilities continue to provide reliable, reasonably priced electric service that supports economic growth, job creation and strong communities.”

So, my theory is that although Rick Boucher lost his reelection for a number of reasons, he badly screwed up as far as his role in “cap and trade” is concerned and this cost him dearly. On the one hand, Boucher angered/demoralized environmentalists by watering down the bill and larding it up with the coal industry wish list. As a result, environmentalists weren’t enthused about defending him. The question is, did Boucher ever demand that the coal industry “go to the mat” for him when it came time, that they run ads defending his work on Waxman-Markey and forcefully help rebut attacks on him as somehow being against coal and power industry interests?  Finally, did Boucher himself make the case persuasively during his campaign about how he had fought for the 9th CD coal industry in crafting this legislation, how he had worked hand-in-hand with the coal and power industry barons, and how those very barons had themselves signed off on the bill and given permission, essentially, for Boucher to proceed?

Although certainly the coal and power industries contributed to the Boucher campaign, I’m not convinced they went “all out” for him.  Obviously, in the end, whatever they did for Boucher – after all the hard work he did for them! – wasn’t nearly effective enough. Again, there were many reasons why Rick Boucher lost his reelection bid a few weeks ago, and “cap and trade” was only one of them (Morgan Griffith certainly made it an issue), but when you think about everything Boucher did for the coal industry in his district, this issue should have been a huge positive for him, not a net negative. From Boucher’s perspective, I’m sure he’s thinking, “life’s not fair.” From an environmentalist’s perspective, though, given Boucher’s role in weakening Waxman-Markey to the degree he did, maybe the more operative phrase is “karma’s a bitch?”

Anyway, I emailed Eric Pooley with this theory, and he responded, “I think your ‘have his back’ insight is the most important point. The environmentalists were never going to deliver many votes to Boucher–not sure weakening the bill cost him, but driving the bill surely did.”  I can go with that, except I still think that environmentalists like the ones on this blog might have been more pro-Boucher if he hadn’t done so much work to weaken Waxman-Markey.

I also contacted several politically astute, “plugged-in” 9th CD residents/consultants/politicos. Here’s a fairly long comment that I think is worth reprinting in full. It’s by someone who knows all the players – and the politics of the 9th CD – extremely well. Bolding is added by me for emphasis.

You’re right on track with the theory that the coal industry forgot their part of the quid pro-quo.  The Boucher camp (Linda DiYorio specifically) came to [us] for our opinions in March 2010.  They wanted general thoughts on a couple of specific things, and then our thoughts overall on the upcoming race.  Specifically they wanted to know how do we get a big, enthusiastic crowd at the nominating convention for Rick.  I had heard their spiel about the coal industry leaders (the execs you refer to in your post) asking them to participate in writing the bill to protect their interests, so I immediately suggested that if the coal industry is behind him on what he did relating to the Cap & Trade bill, call them up and tell them you want 10 bus loads of people employed by coal companies at the convention with signs, t-shirts, hats, whatever saying Rick Boucher stood up for us and we’re here to stand up for him.  As soon as I got done telling them that, Linda went silent.  I took her unspoken response as an indicator that the coal companies weren’t willing to do anything close to that.  

Other things we suggested early were hiring a netroots coordinator (which I don’t think they ever did), bringing in a professional campaign manager (this turned out to be a very consultant driven effort, with Linda and Becky Coleman ‘managing’) and basically not running the same campaign they have run for the past decade.  They did exactly that and ignored everything we told them.  I also recommended they use their cash on hand advantage early to define Rick’s record on coal (a series of ads, chronologically laying out Rick’s 3 decades of support for coal), and not wait until the traditional time to go up on TV and allow Morgan and the 527’s get their money together and be on even footing.  Again, they ignored my suggestion.

Overall, I think Rick made a miscalculation on how to affect the cap & trade issue, as it related to re-election and followed up by poorly communicating his efforts to his constituents. Even after Dan Bowling’s loss in the 3rd HoD race, purely over this type of issue, he didn’t alter his approach to communicating his message to his constituents in any way.  You know as well as I do that campaigns operate in a vacuum far too often, and make decisions based on prior experiences and not current conditions.

How the Boucher campaign could not have listened to this individual is mindboggling, but sadly par for the course when it comes to the insular world of political consultants/campaigns. Ack.

Another highly knowledgeable 9th CD resident and political analyst wrote me that “Boucher brought his problems on himself,” that “his biggest problem was trying to run interference for coal producers and expecting them to love him for doing it.” Well, this source notes, “It doesn’t work that way.” He continues:

Boucher is not stupid. He made some stupid moves. As I expressed to a friend above, Boucher was always trying to pick up that extra edge. He wasn’t shy about selling out the general public’s interest to do so.  

Coal is the primary source of the economy in six SWVA counties. There is nothing else. Our official unemployment rate is about the highest in the state and the real rate of unemployment is probably astronomical. The general feeling in the area is that the economy is still in very bad shape. To do anything to threaten that is totally unacceptable to most people, regardless of their feelings about the environment.  

Noone really believes there is no such thing as global warming.  What denial is present is more akin to smokers denying that cigarettes cause cancer.  This was somewhat popular when tobacco still had price supports.  Even then, a relatively small number of tobacco farmers actually used tobacco.

Other than specifics on “cap and trade” and health care reform – this source also thought that Boucher really screwed up on health care reform – “It’s difficult for most people to think globally when they are getting hammered locally. In the end, the election was just dissatisfaction with life in general.  Folks were without motivation to turn out.

So, there you have it. A lot of this was “the economy stupid,” as well as a general anti-incumbent/anti-Democratic wave this year.  But part of it was Rick Boucher’s mistakes and poor campaign, certainly on the issue this article is primarily about – coal, clean energy, the environment, and “cap and trade.”

UPDATE: I received one more comment from another 9th CD resident I respect greatly that I thought was worth passing along:

Jim McGlothlin did appear in a well run TV ad vouching for Rick and his long time support for the coal industry and Rick did explain many times publicly that he took on cap and trade authorship to help reduce its impact on coal but many folks simply wanted a change from federal spending, I think that was the main driver this election, Rick did win Buchanan, Dickenson and I think Wise County but my synapses ain’t what they use to be, anyway, the coalfield voters mostly stuck with him, Tazewell’s margin for Griffith was a surprise, until two years ago that county had all Dem county elected officials except one R supervisor, now it is majority R on the BOS and the county offices look ripe for a takeover next election; many liberal voters also stayed home due to Rick voting against the health care bill, he was in a proverbial tight spot

UPDATE #2: One of the 9th CD commenters points out, “Boucher carried 3 of the 6 coal counties, and not by as much as he usually did.  He lost Lee, Wise, and Tazewell. He carried Dickenson, Buchanan, and Russell. When Boucher was first elected in 1982, his margin came from the coal counties.”

  • Teddy Goodson

    as well as the usual Democratic problem of the pernicious effect of know-it-all consultants who apparently changed Boucher’s tried-and-true campaign style—- that’s what I read in your good in-depth analysis.

    Yes, it was the economy, yes there was a lot of disgust with, and distrust of, the federal government (typical of that Scots-Irish culture, as Jim Webb has described), but the bottom line seems to be that Boucher did not get his side of the story out early and often, and, even more foolish, failed to get a quid pro quo from the coal barons in exchange for his slavish devotion.

    As for the health care legislation, Boucher voted against it, I assume because of the feedback his constituents gave him. The reason his constituents were so against that legislation is, IMO, because President Obama provided absdolutely no political leadership on the matter, and let the Republicans completely define the issue. Those chickens came home to roost in November, just one more element in what motivated voters in Boucher’s District to vote against a Democratic member of the Establishment—- no matter how Boucher voted on health care, as a Democrat, he was tainted with his association with “Obamacare”

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    From one district over (the district where Morgan Griffith lives), I felt all along that Rick Boucher had become complacent about anyone defeating him, even in a year when Democratic voters were uninspired and the GOPers were fired up. (Boucher never did “inspire” Democrats, anyway.) He sat too long on a war chest far larger than Griffith could have raised, allowing the wealthy corporate wingnuts to pour money into Griffith’s campaign. I agree that he ran the same campaign he had run 14 times before. He grossly underestimated Morgan Griffith, while not being able to develop any real issue against Griggith other that the “carpetbagger” one.

    Boucher should have realized that the coal barons really didn’t need him after he got them what they wanted in the cap and trade bill. So, they doubled down by weakly assisting Boucher, while being careful not to alienate Griffith.

  • The Donkey

    for his campaign, from his campaign funds, for about $30,000, as I recall.

    That was a particularly tone-deaf move on Boucher’s part, IMHO.

  • realclearwin

    Strategy was almost non-existent on the Boucher side. They ran the same tired program they have run for years. Same events with the same people usually on the exact same days. From my experience living, voting and working on campaigns in the 9th Rick’s schedule might as well be in the form of a leather bound book because it never changes year to year regardless of what is going on. They also basically had no field operation at all which certainly didn’t help things. A lot of folks dismiss field programs but look at what Perriello did in the 5th and tell me the huge volume of voter to voter contact their campaign produced didn’t have a significant effect. Boucher, on the other hand, was literally phoning it in from outside the district. I truly believe Boucher could have won but with a campaign as lackluster as his was it is no surprise that he didn’t.