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The Climate Politics Almanac: What to watch for this primary season

A non-comprehensive preview of interesting climate primaries, including several challenges to the Unbreakable Nine

Three weeks from today on March 1, President Joe Biden will deliver his State of the Union address, on the same evening that 2022’s first set of election results start to come in from Texas. For now, we’re celebrating the official start of primary season with a preview of the most interesting primary races to watch from a climate perspective, including several of the “Unbreakable Nine” members who blocked Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) agenda and are now facing competitive primaries.

Build Back Better obstructionists Henry Cuellar, Kurt Schrader, and Ed Case

Texas-28: Rep. Henry Cuellar vs. Jessica Cisneros (March 1)

Despite representing a safe Democratic and nearly 80% Latino district based in Laredo, Rep. Henry Cuellar has been the most conservative Democrat in the US House for decades now. A steadfast ally of George W. Bush (who he endorsed for president in 2000 and sided with on several 2000s-era cultural issues), Cuellar has consistently boosted prison and school privatization, is the only Democrat with a worse rating from the AFL-CIO than some Republicans, has voted against Dodd-Frank and other financial protections, and has supported the most reactionary criminal justice and border enforcement policies, including funding for Trump’s border wall. He also has a horrible record on climate. His lifetime score of 47% from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) makes him the only Democrat in the House with a worse score than several Republicans, and he has been labeled “Big Oil’s Favorite Democrat.”

Immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros challenged Cuellar in 2020, overwhelmingly aligning support from the Sunrise Movement, Planned Parenthood, and a wide range of progressive and pro-choice organizations. With a major assist in the form of heavy spending by the American Petroleum Institute (API), Cuellar prevailed by a narrow 51-48% margin, and then went on to win re-election comfortably even as his south Texas district swung toward Trump. This district got considerably more Democratic in redistricting, and Cisneros is running once more, again with support from Sunrise and other Green New Deal champions such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Because of these endorsements, Cisneros had raised enough money to show she can compete with the corporate-backed Cuellar— and then a January FBI raid on Cuellar’s home gave her campaign a boost. There are few public details about the FBI investigation, which Cuellar has said he is cooperating with, but it appears to be related to his ties to the government of Azerbaijan, with which Cuellar has worked to promote oil and gas production in partnership with the State Department. Last July, Cuellar’s chief of staff Amy Trevioso left his office to become senior director for federal relations at API. Trevioso’s stint in Cuellar’s office came after her previous work for the Chamber of Commerce, which funded ads last summer thanking Cuellar and other members of the so-called “Unbreakable Nine” for obstructing Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) agenda.

Ore.-05: Rep. Kurt Schrader vs. Jamie McLeod-Skinner (May 17)

This district, which was formerly a mix of Portland suburbs and coastal areas, was revised to add more of central Oregon. 48% of the district is new territory for incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader, who announced he would run for re-election here rather than in Oregon’s new sixth district. Schrader has been an outspoken and obstinate “Unbreakable Nine” member, infuriating his fellow House Democrats by being a vocal opponent of prescription drug reform, withholding his support for BBB, and comparing the second impeachment of Trump to a lynching.

Schrader’s record on climate and environmental issues is also very weak. Last year, he voted against a bill to improve climate risk disclosure by companies. In January 2020, Schrader penned an op-ed on the need for bipartisan action on climate change with a highly dubious partner, Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), who once deployed climate change denier arguments in passing an amendment to prevent the Defense Department from studying the national security implications of climate change. McKinley is now the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, where he has vowed to thwart “the Biden Administration and Democrat Majority’s extreme climate change policies.” Schrader has also voted to gut protections against polluting natural gas projects, and he seems to oppose EPA action to regulate toxic chemicals known as PFAS, since he was one of only two Democrats to vote to block the PFAS Action Act until a certification could be obtained from the EPA Administrator (which was coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler at the time).

Schrader challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner

Although this district did not become more progressive in redistricting (it is now rated a marginal D+3), challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an expert in emergency and watershed management, has raised decent sums of money since entering the race in October, and has a persuasive argument to make that she can better connect with the many rural voters who have been added to the district while running as a climate hawk. In previous campaigns for Congress and Secretary of State, McLeod-Skinner performed well in central and eastern Oregon, and consistently carried Deschutes County, which Schrader has never represented. 

Ga.-13: Rep. David Scott vs. Vincent Fort vs. Mark Baker (May 24, June 21 runoff)

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.)

Rep. David Scott represents a solidly safe Democratic seat outside Atlanta, but nonetheless has one of the most conservative voting records among House Democrats. In 2020, Scott faced two unknown primary opponents who raised very modest sums of money, but still came very close to forcing him into a runoff election. Scott has voted to weaken restrictions on pesticides, block Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and grovelingly supported the Keystone XL pipeline, but nonetheless rose to the top position on the House Committee on Agriculture following the 2020 elections.

The House Agriculture Committee Chair is a hugely important position for influencing climate policy, since the farm bill that it passes every five years has many climate implications. Additionally, the Agriculture Committee has oversight over the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which recently set up a Climate Risk Unit and plays a major role in climate financial risk through its regulation of the derivatives market. In the last Congress, Scott’s predecessor as Agriculture Chair attempted to pass a weak CFTC reauthorization bill, but did not succeed, meaning that that remains a part of the Committee’s agenda. However, Scott is not the most trustworthy person to oversee that work, since he is extraordinarily close with the financial industry, and has consistently supported deregulation, as well as weakened oversight over derivatives. With the farm bill coming up next year, Scott’s House colleagues recently took to Politico to question his fitness to continue serving in such an important role (although the story is thought to have been planted by Unbreakable Nine Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), perhaps the only Ag Committee Democrat with an even worse climate record than Scott’s).

Scott is starting the year with a low cash-on-hand total for an incumbent, and has two challengers. South Fulton City Councilmember Mark Baker is running, but Scott’s more formidable opponent seems to be former state senator Vincent Fort, a fairly well-known ally of Bernie Sanders. In announcing his campaign, Fort criticized Scott’s coziness with predatory lenders, which Scott has strongly defended, and even plagiarized from. If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote in the May 24 primary, the top two candidates will go on to a June 21 runoff.

Ill.-06: Rep. Sean Casten vs. Rep. Marie Newman (June 28)

Illinois’ loss of a congressional district created a situation where Illinois Democrats drew two incumbents into the same district, and the race in IL-06 will feature Rep. Marie Newman against Rep. Sean Casten. Generally speaking, Casten is the moderate in the race; he caucuses with the New Democrats, whereas Newman caucuses with the CPC and was initiated into the Squad after defeating social conservative Rep. Dan Lipinski in her second primary attempt in 2020.

Casten’s background as an energy efficiency entrepreneur and expert drew Climate Hawks Vote and other climate groups to his side when he won his Naperville-based district from a Republican in 2018. Casten secured a spot on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and has used his perch on the Financial Services Committee to introduce climate finance-related bills such as the Climate Change Financial Risk Act and the Climate Risk Disclosure Act.

Newman has a good record on climate too, though; she beat Lipinski in 2020 with the support of the Sunrise Movement, and introduced the Clean Future Fund Act as her first sponsored bill. The race will likely be competitive: Newman currently represents a larger portion of the district, but she is facing some ethics allegations and has trailed Casten in fundraising.

Ill.-17: Open seat (June 28)

Even as she was wrapping up a controversial tenure as DCCC Chair, Rep. Cheri Bustos had a tight re-election in 2020 in this Rockford and Peoria-based district. After Bustos announced her retirement, Illinois Democrats made the district a slightly safer D+7, creating a crowded Democratic primary where no clear frontrunner or well-funded candidate has yet emerged. From a climate politics standpoint, the most intriguing candidate is Eric Sorensen, who made connecting the dots on climate change a priority in 20 years as a TV meteorologist—a true rarity in the profession. Former state representative Litesa Wallace, a Bernie Sanders supporter who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, will likely try to occupy the progressive lane, but has not emphasized climate as much. The other notable candidates are Rock Island County Board Member Angie Normyle and Rockford Alderman Jonathan Logemann.

Hawaii-01: Rep. Ed Case vs. Sergio Alculbilla (August 13)

Rep. Ed Case was an annoyingly vocal Blue Dog and Iraq War supporter during his previous tenure in Congress. In 2018, he won a comeback bid over a crowded field of better options. Kaniela Ing, one of Case’s opponents in that 2018 primary, has since teamed with Sunrise Movement co-founder Evan Weber to found Hawaii Action, which launched a six-figure ad calling out Case’s involvement obstructing BBB with the Unbreakable Nine. So far, the only declared candidate in the primary race to take on Case is nonprofit director Sergio Alcubilla, although the filing deadline in this late primary is not until June 7. Case has been a surprisingly weak fundraiser and has yet to blow Alcubilla out of the water.

We will review some key state and local races next, then take a deeper look at the upcoming elections in the Lone Star State in a future post. We will continue to write about climate-related electoral developments in the primary and general throughout this election cycle. Make sure to subscribe to get more of the Climate Politics Almanac.

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