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Environment & Energy Report

Democratic Seat-Flippers Taking a Pass on Green New Deal

April 3, 2019, 9:00 AM

Rep. Mike Levin (Calif.) is one of only two co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution representing a district that flipped from Republican to Democrat in the 2018 midterm elections.

It’s not an unusual position for him. Levin campaigned on his career as an environmental attorney before winning the congressional seat that former GOP Rep. Darrell Issa held for 18 years.

But Republicans say his decision carries a risk, and it’s one that many first-term Democrats are avoiding.

Levin said he speaks for his constituents when he backs the resolution (H.Res.109).

“I know that my values and my goals are consistent with people who live near our coast in California who don’t want to see the worst impacts of climate change,” Levin told Bloomberg Environment. “They want to see us do everything we can to try to mitigate the issue before it becomes irreversible.”

Republicans say that position will hurt him politically.

“I think Levin has stepped a little too far out of the mainstream to position himself where he needs to be in a historically red district,” Jason Roe, a San Diego-based Republican political strategist, told Bloomberg Environment. “Of the seats that Republicans will be targeting in California, this is the most winnable seat.”

The Green New Deal calls for the U.S. to phase out greenhouse gas emissions through renewable energy expansion while providing millions of jobs and health care for all. Republicans are seeking to tie these ambitions to heavy-handed government control and rising energy costs.

The larger GOP strategy is to link the new majority with the unabashedly liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the resolution’s House sponsor.

“Ultimately, it’s part of a larger leftward movement that every Democrat will have to answer to,” said Cam Savage, founder and principal of Limestone Strategies in Alexandria, Va.

Walking a Fine Line

The other Green New Deal co-sponsor from a flipped district, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), is in a different political situation than Levin. She succeeded Republican Carlos Curbelo, who broke party ranks when he proposed carbon tax legislation to curb global warming.

“I think that constituency is probably center-left,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee, Fla., GOP consultant. “She may not be running a great risk.”

Mucarsel-Powell told Bloomberg Environment she decided early on to take “bold, aggressive” action on climate change.

“If it meant having something like the Green New Deal to start working from, then that’s something I intend to do,” she said.

House Democrats made climate change a top priority this Congress, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) creating a select committee on climate change and introducing legislation to stop the Trump administration from leaving the Paris Agreement, the international accord that commits the U.S. to greenhouse gas reductions.

But only one-third of the caucus backs the Green New Deal, as swing-district Democrats walk a fine line between voicing support for climate change action and distancing themselves from the resolution.

“The Green New Deal lays out a set of goals, but not specific policies, and I think the Republicans are using that as a leverage point or as a tool to run against us,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who defeated Republican Steve Knight in November. “I just don’t think we want to give them anything; we don’t want to cede them any ground.”

The Senate version of the resolution failed by a 0-57 vote on March 26, with all Republicans and four senators who caucus with Democrats voting against it.

House Republicans also want to force a Green New Deal vote in a procedure known as a discharge petition. More than 20 Democrats would need to sign onto the petition for the GOP to bring the resolution to the floor—an unlikely feat.

Initial Target

The Cook Political Report rates California’s 49th District that Levin represents as a “likely Democratic” win in 2020. But the National Republican Congressional Committee in February named Levin as one of 55 “initial offensive targets” the GOP will seek to defeat next year. Mucarsel-Powell’s district is a “lean Democratic” seat, according to Cook.

San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Mayor Brian Maryott is the only Republican so far to announce his bid to unseat Levin. A former Democrat himself, he called the Green New Deal a “national economic suicide pact” and “an absurdly naive document and game plan.”

Maryott supports spurring technology innovation in renewable energy and less-polluting fossil fuels to address climate change. He also opposes offshore drilling in this coastal district where support for clean beaches and environmental protection ranks high.

Levin won by 55 percent in 2018 against Republican Diane Harkey. His comfortable margin of victory in a district that voted for Democrats in the last presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial elections means he could easily win again in 2020, said Stephen Nichols, a political science professor at California State University, San Marcos.

Republicans argue that Levin’s win was a fluke, the result of running against a flawed candidate. Harkey’s husband Dan Harkey, a financial broker, was ordered to pay millions of dollars in 2013 for defrauding clients and preying on the elderly.

Levin “got elected in a unique environment in 2018,” said Axiom Strategies’ Stephen Puetz, who is advising Maryott’s campaign. “He’s absolutely vulnerable.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com

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