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Environment Not Top Tier Issue in US Midterm Elections

In the upcoming elections for the U.S. Congress, all seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of those in the Senate are being contested.

According to many experts, the races are tight and the now-minority Democrat party could win a majority of seats in both houses and re-take control of Congress from the Republican Party.

In this election season the position candidates take on the environment could tip the balance.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg Poll, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the way the Bush Administration is handling the environment. In the same poll, 47 percent also say that the environment would NOT be a factor in their vote in the midterm Congressional elections.

Barry Rabe, a political science professor at the University of Michigan says there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that environmental issues are top-of-the-line drivers of elections. "Probably [they are] somewhere in the middle of the pack unless there is a particular concern in a specific state or a region."

Rabe says the Iraq war, national security, the economy and immigration are commanding most voter attention. But he says Americans' environmental concerns ARE being reflected in numerous local and state ballot initiatives.

"There is one in Washington [state] that would mandate and increase the amount of renewable energy provided over time. It is a policy that is already in operation in over 20 states."

Rabe says that candidates across the political spectrum are campaigning on environmentally friendly policies in order to address important new economic realities facing the electorate.

"There are large industrial states like Pennsylvania that have a lot of environmental issues, where candidates from both parties are beginning to argue that there are some new opportunities in environmental protection to develop new energy technologies, new energy efficiency mechanisms, to be on the cutting edge of the next generation of environmental protection and embed that into state economic development strategies."

Rabe says that when it comes to responding to the prospect of global climate change, states have stepped in where the federal government has failed to act. Twelve states have set goals to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases, which trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere, and are a major factor in global warming.

T wenty-eight states have climate action plans. And California and New York have agreed [October 16] on a carbon-trading partnership that would link greenhouse-gas credit markets in Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States, to spread out the cost of emission reductions.

Rabe says industries frustrated by inconsistent state-by-state energy standards could begin to push for legislation that would regulate their industry. "There is an enormous precedent for this, not just in environmental policy, but in many other spheres."

And doing so, Rabe says, would promote an environmental agenda with an unlikely coalition of partners. "In some cases industry might want some degree of consistency, predictability, uniformity [of standards or regulations] alongside environmental and other groups that we normally would not think of as allies, but could in fact become allies."

While these alliances gain momentum, Rabe says votes for candidates friendly to the environment could help change the agenda in Congress. The League of Conservation Voters is pushing for exactly that.

The non-partisan group ranks environmental voting records for each member of congress and then publishes the scores. LCV spokesman Tony Massaro says the group has singled out the worst of the so-called "Dirty Dozen" [Lawmakers] and campaigned against them. "Over the course of the past five election cycles, since 1996, 52 percent of the members of the Dirty Dozen have been defeated in the subsequent election," he says. "If you get on the list of the Dirty Dozen, odds are you are going to lose. We are very proud of that record at a time when 96 percent of incumbents have been re-elected."

It is not clear whether a candidate's stand on the environment will make a difference with voters in the November 7 elections. But University of Michigan political scientist Barry Rabe says with so many close races, almost any issue that brings more voters to the polls could change the outcome and possibly alter the balance of political power in Washington.