In his quest to become the next senator from Massachusetts, Democratic Rep. Edward Markey is doing something that’s never been done before: campaigning for national office on the signature issue of climate change.
To be sure, it’s not risky or unusual to run for office in the liberal Bay State on an environmental agenda. Markey’s opponent in the June 25 special election, former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, calls himself a “green Republican” who believes human activity contributes to climate change.
But Markey has made climate change his political raison d’etre. In his relentless focus on the issue, he is emerging as something new: a climate candidate.
In his 37 years in Congress, Markey has worked on many legislative issues—he was a big player on telecommunications policy in the 1990s, for example.
And while he’s noted those accomplishments, he has spotlighted his work on a bill that never actually became law: In 2009, Markey teamed with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to push a historic climate-change bill through the House. It squeaked by but failed in the Senate.
Markey was also the only chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was established when Democrats took control of the House in 2007 and dismantled when Republicans regained the majority in 2011.
Markey’s message now is that if he is elected to the Senate, he’ll see the mission through and be a national voice for action on climate change.
On Markey’s campaign website, climate change is listed as the No. 1 issue. The top issue in most other congressional campaigns—jobs and the economy—is listed sixth on his site. It’s the reverse of the way voters in most polls rank the issues.
“Dangerous greenhouse gases are warming our planet at such a rate that we can only look at Hurricane Sandy ... and say, there but for the grace of God went the entire Massachusetts coastline,” Markey said in one campaign speech. “I want to go to the Senate to make sure we pass meaningful climate-change legislation,” he said in another.
“He’s had a long career and there are a lot of things to associate with him, and he’s chosen that,” said Maurice Cunningham, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “I don’t think climate change in Massachusetts is terribly controversial, but in the nation it is. It distinguishes him.”
Cunningham added that Markey would have an “immediate identity” in the Senate on climate change, just as freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., entered the upper chamber this year known for her solid background in consumer protection.
Even former Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the nation’s most prominent climate-change advocate, never made the issue central when he was campaigning for office. But Gore is expected to highlight Markey’s commitment to climate change Tuesday night at a Washington fundraiser for the Senate candidate. Vice President Joe Biden is also scheduled to speak.
Environmental groups see Markey’s campaign as a watershed moment and are pouring resources into electing him. To date, Markey’s campaign has drawn about twice as much outside spending as Gomez’s, primarily from national environmental groups. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that outside groups have spent $1.7 million in advertising and other activities to support Markey and about $843,000 to support Gomez. The vast majority of that spending--$1.2 million--has come from environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters; 350.org, which has led protests around the country opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline; the Sierra Club; and the NextGen Committee, which was founded by Tom Steyer, a Silicon Valley billionaire and Obama donor who helped fund a campaign to save California's climate-change law.
“He’s led on it, and he’s actually campaigning on it. He’s breaking new ground,” said Navin Nayak, political director of the League of Conservation Voters. “It’s a message we want to make sure other politicians see. If you put your back into addressing climate change, we’ll have your back. To show that we have Markey’s back is critical.”
The GOP is pouncing on Markey’s green bucks. “Ed Markey’s biggest accomplishment during his four decades in Washington has been cozying up to radical environmental special interests, causing Massachusetts union workers and their representatives to worry about how extreme Markey actually is,” wrote Brook Hougesen, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in an e-mail to National Journal Daily.
Polls show Markey maintaining a comfortable lead over Gomez, although it may be narrowing a bit. A June 1 New England College poll found Markey leading Gomez by 52 percent to 40 percent, while a Suffolk College poll released over the weekend found Markey’s lead at 48 percent to 41 percent.
Even if Markey rides a climate-change platform to a Senate seat, the bigger question is what he’ll be able to do on the issue once he gets there. The seat he hopes to fill was held by Secretary of State John Kerry, who championed a Senate version of Markey’s 2009 bill that went down in flames.
“The Senate is like an old forest with deep roots—pretty hard to move, even with a big wind,” said former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. “And so far, the Senate has appeared not to want to move on climate in a very direct way.” But Dorgan said Markey could help lay the groundwork for passage of a future bill.
Although he is known as a liberal, Markey does have a record of legislative success with Republicans in the House. In particular, he has a long-standing friendship with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., whose panel has jurisdiction over climate legislation.
“Ed is somebody with considerable legislative talent,” Dorgan said. “It takes a great deal of repetition and patience to get something done in the Senate, but you never know when the dam is going to break.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that outside groups gave $1.7 million to Markey and $843,000 to Gomez. In fact, this money was spent by the groups on advertising and other activities, independent of the two campaigns.
- Politics & Government
- climate change