It’s the most expensive race in Washington’s 2020 election. In Washington’s 3rd Congressional District in Southwest Washington, Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler is fighting for a sixth term against second-time Democrat challenger Carolyn Long.
Herrera Beutler was first elected in 2010. She has worked her way up in politics, serving as a state legislator before making it to Congress. She recently vowed to vote for Trump in this election, although she has expressed disdain for her party's leader in the past. She also describes herself as "the first Hispanic to represent Washington federally."
Carolyn Long is a professor of political science at Washington State University - Vancouver, challenging Herrera Beutler for the second time. She likes to talk about growing up with her parents running a family-owned business, selling fresh produce. She says she put herself through college working a union job as a grocery clerk.
Attack ads are flooding the airwaves, as Democrats attempt to flip the district. An infusion of $1.1 million in independent ad spending during the first three weeks of October alone brought the total spending in this contest to more than $10 million — breaking a record for the district.
But there was only one actual debate between the candidates, put on virtually by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 9. It revealed many stark differences between the candidates — above all on climate policies. Journalists from four local newspapers posed the questions, which were submitted by the public.
THE PARIS CLIMATE ACCORD
The first question asked was about environmental regulations: which rollbacks under the Trump administration the candidates support, and which ones they would push to reinstate.
Long answered first, saying it was a mistake for the U.S. to yield its position of leadership in the Paris climate accord and that climate change is causing “massive changes in weather” that put everyone at risk. She also said she would “rollback the rollbacks.”
Herrera-Beutler said the Paris accord is costly for American taxpayers and unfair because it lets China continue to pollute — she says there are other ways to “make sure we are reducing our carbon footprint and protecting our economy” through carbon capture, better renewable storage and energy technologies.
Another area of contrast came in response to a question about wildfires and what forest management practices or other measures the candidates would support to mitigate the fires. Herrera Beutler answered first, saying she would continue to push for more aggressive forest management and that this is the main issue to work on, to prevent the forests from becoming tinderboxes.
“…to thin, to get rid of the ladder fuels and to sustainably harvest them, not to commercially log the whole forest, but to create a healthy forest. What you have right now are more trees that are dying or that are growing than we're removing,” she said.
Carolyn Long said “obviously proper management of our forests is one thing that we can do,” but she doesn’t see that as the root cause of the more intense forest fires people have been suffering through.
“The more frequent forest fires are really because we have climate change," she said. "And that climate change is affecting our environment and making this happen much more frequently.”
In her rebuttal, Herrera Beutler stated clearly, "I do believe climate change is real," and continued, saying the way to reduce our carbon footprint is to "get into our federal forest — yesterday — and sustainably harvest some of that timber."
Perhaps the sharpest contrast between the candidates came over the question of a carbon tax. It was certainly the liveliest exchange during the debate, though the issue was not raised by the moderators. Herrera Beutler brought it up, repeatedly, because she said Long likes to use climate “as a buzzword.” Herrera Beutler pressed Long to clarify her stance on this specific policy, saying a carbon tax would be costly for families in the district — even calling it “criminal.”
“I'm going to give her a second to give us a yes or no answer,” Herrera Beutler said. “Will you oppose a carbon tax that's supported by these radical environmental groups who've endorsed you?”
Long didn’t instantly answer when the moderator gave her the floor.
“Silence is deafening,” snapped Herrera.
“No, it's not,” said Long, adding that she did not support Washington’s statewide initiative on a carbon fee in 2018. “I said that we shouldn't move toward taxes and fees,” she added, dodging her opponent's direct question.
ANALYSTS WEIGH IN
Though it made for a lively exchange, Herrera Beutler’s pressure on this topic may have been a red herring.
“Carbon tax is dead,” said Aseem Prakash, a professor of political science who directs the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington.
“The state of Washington — twice in the referendum, once in the Legislature — has not supported it. And nobody in the country is actually supporting it,” he told KNKX.
Economists love carbon tax policies. They make intuitive sense and they’re much less complicated than the leading alternative for reducing carbon emissions: cap and trade. But they’re politically problematic, says Nives Dolsak, a professor of sustainability science and director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. Dolsak and Prakash share a byline as regular contributors to Forbes.
“The downside of the carbon tax — from a political perspective, not from economic — is that those of us who buy products that have been manufactured by using fossil fuels, all of us will pay more for those products. And that is where the political support stops,” Dolsak said.
Dolsak and Prakash think a carbon tax could only pass in the context of some kind of grand bargain, with oil companies accepting it only if they get immunity from lots of liabilities. But with the Democratic party increasingly split, they see this as unlikely, because the more liberal wing of "Green New Dealers" would likely resist, pressing for more concessions.
On the topic of wildfires, however, Prakash says Herrera Beutler went with the obvious policy choice — one that pretty much all politicians agree about: forest management has been neglected and must be fixed to stem the infernos recently seen in the West.
“Climate change is not the one that's pulling the trigger. Climate change is an accelerator. It has a multiplier effect,” Prakash said.
Dolsak added that forest management is a "climate adaptation" measure — these are the highly tangible things that need to be done in response to climate change. “So we're not going to see much disagreement on what is called the climate adaptation,” she said. “Changing land use, adjusting transportation, adjusting infrastructure.
“Where we are going to see disagreements not just in the 3rd District, but anywhere, is over how do we control the pollution? How do we control the source of the problem?”
And between these two candidates, Dolsak points out, Herrera Beutler has a record of voting against pollution controls or abstaining, while Long is saying she’ll do what it takes to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.
Despite the remarkable political spending in this race, Prakash and Dolsak say its outcome remains relatively insulated from national or even state-level politics. The district has two so-called "pivot counties" — Cowlitz and Pacific — that swung from Obama to Trump in the last election. Voters there will likely support the candidate they feel will best address the high unemployment they face.
However, with an economy that depends heavily on natural resources and tourism, both of which are impacted by the changing climate, Dolsak says environmental policy may also play a role.
Long trailed Herrera Beutler by six points in the August primary, but Long’s campaign says recent polling shows her "within the margin of error" for a victory.
“It's going to be an interesting race to watch,” Prakash said.