In the race for the White House, the climate change debate has been more or less missing in action. In the race for a central Texas House seat, the Democrat hoping to topple 30-year incumbent Republican Lamar Smith has made global warming his top campaign issue.
Democrat Tom Wakely is campaigning as a champion of climate science in a year when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — and most other candidates for Congress, for that matter — have barely touched on the issue, in what is shaping up to be the hottest year on record.
Smith, 68, an attorney from San Antonio who’s represented the area northwest of the city since 1987, rejects the scientific consensus that man-made pollution is behind global warming. He’s used his perch as committee chairman to subpoena federal climate scientists to discredit their research, issuing a record number of legal summonses this Congress and turning a panel that was once a sleepy backwater into an aggressive attack dog.
This has made Smith a polarizing figure in Washington, beloved by oil and gas interests who give generously to his campaigns and vilified by those fighting to reduce global warming pollution.
Now his attacks on scientists are percolating back home in a district buffeted in recent years by drought and water shortages and alternate floods. And while Smith does not often highlight his views on climate change on the campaign trail, Wakely, a little-known Democratic activist, saw an opening this year.
“Lamar Smith is the major impediment to anything being done on climate change in Congress and absolutely nobody is talking about it,” said the 63-year-old Air Force veteran and former union organizer who supported Bernie Sanders. “People in this district are slowly getting the message that climate change is not a far left wing conspiracy.”
Wakely has little shot at unseating Smith, who is running for a 16th term in a safely red district.
But his campaign isn’t the only sign that Smith’s stance on global warming is raising some eyebrows back home.
Smith has long won the support of local newspapers. But this year, his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express-News, refused to endorse him for reelection, citing his “bullying tactics” on climate change.
“We’ve argued that Smith’s undeniably conservative credentials have been a good fit for the 21st congressional District,” the editorial board wrote on Oct. 17. “However, Smith’s actions have developed more transparently this term into an issue that goes beyond the boundaries of his district. A particular issue is his abuse of his position as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Specifically, it is his bullying on the issue of climate change that should concern all Americans.” The Express-News is one of Texas’s largest newspapers.
The editorial cited Smith’s threat to Kathryn Sullivan, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of criminal charges if she did not release her scientists’ internal communications about a landmark study they released last year refuting the long-held view of a global warming pause.
The Express-News did not endorse Wakely, though, saying he is not a good fit for the conservative district.
Texas’s 21st, which stretches from parts of San Antonio to parts of Austin through rural Hill Country, has been safely red for years, thanks to redistricting that has given Republicans a generous electoral advantage.
Smith was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump and has stood by the nominee, who is favored to win central Texas. Like Trump, he says the U.S. has not done enough to secure the border with Mexico and is co-sponsoring legislation to keep out Syrian refugees.
This Congress, Smith has shown a willingness to go beyond the boundaries of the science committee’s traditional jurisdiction, subpoenaing attorneys general and environmental groups investigating whether oil giant ExxonMobil covered up what it knew of the dangers of climate change and launching an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. He has also demanded records from the Environmental Protection Agency to undermine President Obama’s regulations to reduce emissions from power plants.
“As Chairman, I have an obligation to conduct vigorous oversight of agencies and programs within my jurisdiction,” Smith said in a statement to the Post. “Under that umbrella, I work to ensure that federal agencies base their regulations and policy decisions on the best available science and not on partisan politics.”
Wakely runs a private hospice care home for veterans and other patients. He served early in his career on a school board in southern Wisconsin. He says he was motivated to make climate change a core issue because his granddaughter has asthma and he worries about pollution. He argues that global warming is keenly felt by voters in the district, who have been faced in recent years with long droughts and severe water shortages.
“We’re talking about water,” Wakely said. “That resonates with everybody. It’s part of the changing climate.”
In a district with a large military presence, Wakely also says he will fight for faster benefits and better health care for veterans.
Smith did not face a Democratic opponent two years ago. He has always won reelection with at least 60 percent of the vote. While the district is now 28 percent Latino, a demographic trend that could favor a Democrat, a smaller percentage of these residents are registered to vote.
While the economy of the Lone Star state is heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry, energy companies are not a huge presence in the 21st district. Still, Smith calls climate science an economic threat to his constituents.
“The Obama administration along with climate alarmists have long pursued climate policies that would cost Americans billions of dollars and put hard working people in my district out of a job,” he said.
Smith has raised $1.4 million this election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, while Wakely has brought in $64,400, much of it in small contributions. ClimateHawksVote, a political action committee that endorses candidates who fight global warming, has identified Wakely as its top “message” candidate this year.
A 2014 estimate by the nonprofit Yale Program on Climate Change Communication of attitudes toward the issue found that 65 percent of people in Texas’s 21st district believe global warming is happening, similar to 63 percent nationwide. The estimate, based on a statistical model using national surveys, also said 49 percent believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, while 33 percent think it is caused by natural environmental changes. Those numbers roughly mirror national data.
Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said he doubts climate change is a top voter concern in the district. “I think it’s driven from within for Smith, more by his personal beliefs,” Jones said.
Texas is one of ten states that allow straight ticket voting, where general election voters can choose every candidate in a political party who is on the ballot. With Trump favored to win the 21st district, this makes Wakely’s challenge tougher.