It doesn't pay to be a fossil fuel Democrat on election day

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WillinoisThis was a difficult election for Democrats and it was even worse for Democrats still pushing fossil fuels. The Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Coal Caucus lost his seat along with a slew of others who tried to prove they’re as pro-coal, pro-oil, and pro-fracking as any Republican.

There are plenty of examples like Grimes in Kentucky. Or Tennant and Nick Rahall in West Virginia who mimicked conservative talking points on coal in their losing races. Mary Landrieau is expected to lose in a Louisiana run-off. If you can’t run on clean energy and climate change in a state that saw hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil disaster then you’re an incompetent politician.

No state made the point more clearly than Illinois, where Democrats serious about climate won re-election while fossil fuel Democrats lost. Governor Pat Quinn once bragged about passing a bill to launch fracking along with lead Senate sponsor Mike Frerichs. Quinn lost re-election after spending months avoiding the issue (and anti-fracking protesters).

Mike Frerichs, who has been viewed as an environmental leader in the past, is still second place in a close count for state Treasurer. He raised climate change and clean energy early in the race but dropped the issue after realizing most of the environmental movement is unhappy with his lead role in launching fracking. Most environmental voters aren’t nearly as happy with the fracking law as the four statehouse green groups who supported it.

An upset few predicted six months ago is the loss of incumbent Congressman Bill Enyart to confessed dog-killer Mike Bost. The Democratic district hasn’t elected a Republican in 70 years but has a long coal mining history. Enyart became Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Coal Caucus with John Shimkus, who’s best known outside Illinois as the Republican who conducted a failed investigation and helped cover up the Foley Congressional page sex scandal.

What did pandering to the coal industry accomplish for Enyart? He lost by a wide margin, getting just 39%. The Green Party candidate increased her vote share to over 6%. Voter turnout was roughly half what it was in 2012. Southern Illinois Democrats had little motivation to vote with the top of the ticket, Governor Pat Quinn, angering them by cutting public employee pensions, closing important regional facilities, and launching fracking.

The coal industry didn’t give Enyart a money advantage either. His fundraising was lower than most incumbents in competitive races. His opponent received larger donations from many fossil fuel interests, including Knight Hawk Coal and Koch Industries. No matter how pro-coal a Democrat tries to be, the industry can always find a Republican who will promise more.

It didn’t work for central Illinois candidate Ann Callis running in one of the nation’s most closely divided Congressional districts. After getting a Sierra Club endorsement in the primary, over two opponents with better environmental platforms, she expressed her support  for more spending on clean coal and promised to not support President Obama on new clean air rules because they wouldn’t create enough coal jobs. By trying to find a safe middle ground she managed to make both sides of the debate unhappy.

Callis won a disappointing 41% despite a more liberal Democrat losing by only 1,000 votes two years ago. She’s an appealing candidate in many ways but Democrats and independents I spoke to felt like her play-it-safe, issue-avoidant campaign never gave people a reason to vote for her.

Being a fossil fuel Democrat clearly isn’t working anymore. It’s not going to get any easier as support for taking action on climate change grows. What should Democrats do now?

The next candidate who runs on creating a new energy economy in places like southern Illinois and eastern Kentucky may lose. Attitudes change slowly.

Democrats have two choices:
1) Run candidates who make unconvincing appeals that they’re just as pro-coal as the Republican and continue losing year after year while never changing the conventional wisdom.
2) Talk about creating new energy economies in a way that builds support to win next time.

Political parties don’t like to think beyond the next upcoming election, but it’s going to take a long-term strategy for Democrats to regain ground in post-coal country. Running on a new message may not work right away, but hey, the pro-coal Democrat is going to lose anyway. You might as well build for the future by honestly telling people we have to attract new energy jobs because the old coal jobs are never coming back.

It’s only a matter of how long it takes party leaders to accept that fossil fuel Democrats aren’t coming back either.

© 2014 Willinois. This article is reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.