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Green Panic: Cap And Trade Puts Vulnerable Democrats On Defense

As Democrats descend into a spiral of panic about the 2010 midterm elections, strategists for both parties are wondering how big an issue the cap-and-trade energy plan will be. On June 26, the House, in a tight 219-212 vote, passed a Democratic bill that aims to reduce emissions through tradable pollution credits. Republicans say the bill would burden the economy and jack up electricity rates while producing uncertain benefits.

Forty-four Democrats — many from energy-producing or industrial districts — abandoned their party, but at least two dozen vulnerable Democrats bit the bullet and voted yes.

As the bill awaits Senate action, Republicans believe they have a winning issue.

“The bill may be stopped dead in its tracks, but this vote will still haunt them until Election Day,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay.

Democrats disagree. In August, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman surveyed voters in four marginal congressional districts represented by a Democratic incumbent who voted for the bill. Support for the bill exceeded 60 percent in each. Even when voters were told that opponents say it could “create a new energy tax that will raise energy prices for consumers by thousands of dollars,” support still exceeded 58 percent everywhere.

In January, the Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, found similar results in a 16-state poll.

Bernadette Budde, a Business Industry Political Action Committee political analyst, said that while health care reform quickly “became shorthand for ‘government big spending,’” cap and trade “is much more amorphous.”

This helps incumbents frame the issue more favorably. “If they sit back and let their opponents define it as a light-switch tax, they are making a mistake,” said Democratic strategist Michael Bocian. “If they turn the tables and make clear that their opponents are against reducing our dependence on foreign oil, against making America a leader in the clean energy industry, I don’t see it hurting them.”

Here are eight House Democrats whose reelection battles could be influenced by the cap-and-trade fight. While some Republicans could be affected, too — California Rep. Mary Bono Mack is getting attacked over cap and trade by a primary challenger from her right — we’ll stick to Democrats, given the national environment.

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