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Climate change lessons to be drawn from Markey’s victory are vague and unclear, as climate/elections focus now shifts to Virginia gubernatorial campaign involving Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

The special Massachusetts election to fill the seat of former Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, was, on the surface at least, “green” all over.

But what exactly the June 25 victory for former U.S. House member and Democrat Edward Markey teaches about climate change electoral politics going forward remains very much unclear. Climate policy wonks, the media, and political junkies may have trouble discerning implications for the next key statewide race likely to highlight climate change issues — the November Virginia gubernatorial election involving Republican candidate and current Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Markey, the new Senator-elect, was the nation’s first “climate candidate,” as National Journal dubbed him, and his victory over a little-known Republican adversary few gave a chance to win was a “day for climate hawks to celebrate,” the environmental news site Grist proclaimed. The defeated candidate, Gabriel Gomez, was a “green Republican” who believed climate change was “real.” But Gomez’s support of the Keystone XL pipeline project and his views that Washington’s current approaches to clean energy and climate are “not rational” and would put “America at a competitive disadvantage” fired up some political progressives.

Environmental groups said it was the most important race of the year and early-on had pledged to come out in a big way for Markey, long a green hero.

No Contest on Campaigns’ Energy and ‘Green’ Support

The President headed a line-up of top Democrats visiting the Bay State to help ensure a Markey Senate victory.

The Markey campaign saw ample money and other political action fund money rain in from both environmental and energy interests. His campaign received some $500,000 in help, according to the Center for Public Integrity, from billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer’s interest in the race began when Markey faced a Democratic primary candidate, Rep. Stephen Lynch, who was supporting the Keystone XL (this happened despite Markey’s distancing himself from Steyer).

Further, as a Politico analysis showed, financial support from energy interests favored Markey by a huge margin — a factor of 76 to 1. With more than $3 million in “energy cash,” including funds from League of Conservation Voters-affiliated groups, Markey’s campaign treasury dwarfed that of Gomez.

“The League of Conservation Voters was very active on Ed’s behalf in the primary and general,” Dan Payne, a Democratic political consultant in Massachusetts, told The Yale Forum. “They supplied people to knock on doors and sent out mailings (some, curiously, were not about the environment). Ed mentioned climate change often in speeches, and it was part of his election night speech a few days ago…. His campaign manager, Sarah Benzing, joined up because of his climate change record.”

But there was a clear sense at the end of the race that climate issues had taken a back seat in a state known to be among the most “blue” in the nation and among the most “green” on environmental issues. In the end, the race was more conventional than early hype had suggested it might be.

“The climate and environment was largely missing from the campaign,” Maurice Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, wrote in an e-mail. “But it is one of those congeries of progressive issues that Markey has emphasized during his House career that carries weight here, in a Democratic primary and statewide. It helped him, no doubt.”

(The election run-up also unfolded just prior to President Obama’s climate speech, with its call for greatly expanded EPA regulations on carbon emissions. This meant that the “issue salience” remained low among voters, unlike in Virginia, where gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Cuccinelli are now sparring over the proposed policies on coal and climate change.)

Climate in the Election Background

If there ever were a major political race where support for addressing climate change might figure prominently, the Massachusetts race might be it.

Still, there was no Ross Perot-, Howard Dean-, or Ron Paul-like campaign being run under a kind of unifying banner, and the race may not have allowed for it. Although Markey certainly highlighted the climate issue at various points, observers say the race he ran was more tactical. His closing arguments to the public tended to emphasize gun control, preserving Social Security, or a woman’s right to choose.

Given the surprise Senate upset in Massachusetts by Republican Scott Brown several years prior, Democrats’ ultimate goal, it seemed, was to avoid a repeat. The state’s voters are largely on board with addressing climate change, and polls consistently gave Markey a substantial lead.

Markey is, of course, co-author of the landmark Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which narrowly passed the U.S. House in 2009. His credentials on climate change issues were, in other words, unimpeachable: Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein told the Boston Globe that Markey’s work on cap-and-trade was “masterful,” and no doubt voters expect him to continue his work on climate issues in the Senate.

Even groups that took issue with his positions on the XL pipeline and other oil, gas, and nuclear projects, such as the AFL-CIO, eventually came around to support him.

A review of the major speeches, debates, advertisements, and media coverage shows that climate change did not play much of a direct role as a substantive issue.

Even major polls taken before the election did not ask voters their views on the climate issue — the Boston Globe’s June poll is just one example — instead focusing on the economy or national security questions, on “likability” issues, or on wedge or “litmus test” issues such as abortion rights. (A slight exception is a WBUR June poll, in which a combined 82 percent of voters said the candidates’ environmental policies would be either “very important” or “somewhat important.”)

The climate issue in effect was seen more as an implicit part of Markey’s biography. His long history of House of Representatives activism on the issue reassured the overwhelmingly “blue-leaning” Democratic base in Massachusetts, allowing him to beat a more centrist primary foe. And, in the general election phase, Markey could focus more on areas where he might be more vulnerable to attack — on “pocketbook” issues like the economy and jobs. It was a race, after all, that featured a big negative ad blitz from outside groups on such issues.

“Markey’s specific stands on the environment and climate change may not have registered with more than a small proportion of the public,” Dan Kennedy, professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a frequent political commentator, told The Yale Forum. “But Massachusetts voters seemed intent on electing the most progressive candidate available, choosing Markey first over a less liberal Democrat, Steve Lynch, and then over Gomez. In that respect, Markey’s strong environmental credentials were no doubt part of the reason that he not only won, but won easily.”

Pro-Science, but Not Political Science

Democratic Party major figures — from President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to Vice President Joe Biden and Michelle Obama — all made trips to support Markey. Some observers remarked that the campaign ended up being kind of a progressive team effort by an ensemble cast to hold down a piece of real estate long “owned” by Democrats; the Globe’s headline after the victory, “Edward Markey Keeps Party’s Hold on Senate Seat,” suggested as much.

Defeated Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez.

In a short campaign, with low voter turnout — only 27 percent of registered voters, a record low — Markey ended up garnering 55 percent of the vote.

In the end, it made some in the pundit class remark that, although Gomez may have said he’s not “anti-science,” his campaign tactics and direction suggest he didn’t listen enough to political science.

“In a nutshell, the political science literature tells us to expect a special election in June to attract a disproportionate number of high-information, partisan voters who hold clear positions on the most salient policy issues,” wrote Jerold Duquette, associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. But as Duquette noted at the MassPoliticsProfs blog on the eve of the election, “Gomez’s cookie-cutter, candidate-centered, anti-politics, anti-Washington campaign is overtly directed at the voters who are least likely to turnout for a ‘special’ election in June.”

Soon, all eyes in the climate change/electoral politics arena will be focusing their laser-beam attention on the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe gubernatorial race in Virginia. In that race, it’s Cuccinelli’s spirited and ideological campaign against Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann and the University of Virginia, where Mann earlier had worked, that is likely to garner the most attention on the climate angle.

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