Five Cleantech Senate Candidates to Watch

Will 2008 be known as the “energy/cleantech election?” Will the American public side with a “Drill Now” approach, or will the public embrace commitments to new alternative and renewable energy technologies? The better question is, “Will the election bring the kinds of changes to Congress that will lead to a breakthrough in climate change and energy policy?”

Here are five Senate races whose outcomes will be decisive in the Senate’s ability to move cleantech and energy legislation in 2009 and beyond.

Mark Udall (D) is a Democratic Congressman from Colorado running for the Senate seat of retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard. Colorado is home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a growing and diverse cleantech set of interests including wind turbine manufacturing and cellulosic biofuels developers. Mark Udall is Chairman of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, and if he prevails in November, he would join Senator Ken Salazar, (D – CO), who already serves on the Finance and Energy Committees, to give Colorado and the Mountain West a powerful clean energy team in the Democratically-controlled Senate.

Tom Udall (D) is the Democratic Congressman from Santé Fe, New Mexico. No, this is not a typo Рhis cousin Mark is the candidate for Senate in Colorado, noted above. (Yet another cousin, Republican Senator Gordon Smith from Oregon is campaigning for re-election this year. More on his race below.) Home to Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, New Mexico is a leader in the development of clean technology. Tom Udall, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, is seeking to replace longtime New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici (R), who previously chaired the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee and the full Senate Energy Committee. If elected, look for Tom Udall to take his clean energy interests to the Appropriations Committee, as fellow New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (D) currently chairs the Senate Energy Committee and serves on the tax-writing Finance Committee.

Senator Max Baucus (D) from Montana will undoubtedly be re-elected this fall and return to Washington, D.C., where he will continue to Chair the Senate Finance Committee. Because tax incentives remain the most effective way to spur the cleantech industry, Chairman Baucus will write tax legislation and will have numerous industries clamoring for tax incentives in a difficult fiscal environment. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, Baucus has already championed feedstock and biodiesel interests for his state. As Montana’s senior Senator, he will also be one of the primary authors of the next Highway Reauthorization legislation that will include numerous energy and cleantech provisions. Max Baucus may be the most important and influential Senator to the cleantech community.

Senator Gordon Smith (R) from Oregon is running for a third term. Smith and his Democratic colleague Ron Wyden give Oregon two seats at the important Senate Finance Committee. Senator Smith also serves on the Energy Committee. Both of Smith’s committee assignments give the Senator a front-row seat to tackle one of Oregon’s most important public policy issues – energy. And with his state’s growing cleantech leadership, including wind, solar manufacturing and alternative fuels, Smith is positioned to be an ally for the broader cleantech industry in the Senate, where Republican votes and voices matter even when under Democratic control. Senator Smith could be a crucial bridge to real bipartisan support for cleantech initiatives.

Mark Warner, (D) the former Governor of Virginia and a successful telecommunications businessman, is being counted on to be the Senate Democrats’ strong “New Economy” messenger. Warner contemplated a run for the Presidency before committing to the Virginia Senate race, where he is a big favorite to win in November. On the campaign trail Warner talks about fundamentally changing the way we power our country and our economy. He’s one of the few Democrats endorsed by the United States Chamber of Commerce and will surely be called on to balance pressure from the environmental community with his pragmatic approach to business. In the Senate, Mark Warner could become a key cleantech deal maker – bringing business, finance, clean and green interests together to finally achieve some legislative common ground on energy, climate change and other vitally important issues.

These five Senate candidates are all worth watching, though they aren’t the only Senate candidates brandishing cleantech credentials this year. But if elected, these five candidates will no doubt change, shape and lead the debate in Washington and be strong voices on behalf of the cleantech industry for years to come. The best sign that the cleantech issues will be a congressional priority in 2009 and beyond is that most Senate candidates have ambitious campaign platforms and the right rhetoric on cleantech issues.

Ben McMakin is Managing Director, Governmental Issues at Van Ness Feldman, where he is also a Principal. He spent 17 years as a senior political and legislative advisor to members of the Washington and Oregon congressional delegations. Today, Mr. McMakin uses his comprehensive knowledge of Congress and the legislative process to advance client interests on an array of issues including appropriations, cleantech, energy, transportation, defense and homeland security and technology.

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