The 2006 midterm elections resulted in a loss of the Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, but one of the most surprising losses was that of House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R.-Calif.) who made reform of the Endangered Species Act his signature issue. Pombo became the first sitting House committee chairman to be defeated in 12 years.
At first glance, wind-energy consultant Jerry McNerney (D.) seemed un-threatening to the seven-term incumbent from a strong Republican district where President Bush carried 54% of the vote in 2004, but rumors quickly spread in the last leg of the campaign that Pombo’s ship was sinking.
“Pombo became the No. 1 target, and that was what made it difficult” said Scott LaGanga, executive director of Property Rights Alliance. “For the first time, there was a huge push on the Democrats’ part in this district, and what they focused on washed out Pombo’s message.”
The rumors of Pombo’s vulnerability were confirmed when his campaign made phone calls requesting volunteers with only one week remaining until Election Day. Pombo needed help reaching Republican voters who were being bombarded with mailings and robo-calls from environmentalists. Pombo acknowledged in post election reports that the only way he could have won was with a big GOP turn-out. Lack of GOP voters initially seemed unlikely after he overwhelmingly won his primary over former Rep. Pete McCloskey.
National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Ed Patru said they spent $1.4 million on Pombo’s campaign and that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $217,000. “But you have to remember that there are at least three environmental groups that spent a lot of money,” said Patru.
The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the League of Conservation Voters spent a whole year placing robo-calls against Pombo. They sent in more than 300 volunteers knocking on thousands of doors, and spent close to $2 million in efforts to defeat Pombo.
“They made it a mis-education campaign,” said LaGanga, who sees the loss as a result of the left’s efforts to label Pombo as an extreme anti-environment politician in order to silence the private-property rights that are the root of his environmental issues.
With all the time Pombo spent supporting oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and trying to re-write the Endangered Species Act, it was easy for McNerney and environmentalist groups to claim he was ignoring the concerns of his constituents, such as contaminated drinking water and high traffic congestion.
Some Republicans criticized Pombo for focusing so much on the environment at the expense of local issues. One GOP insider said, “[Pombo’s] entire team was focused on communicating and talking about issues that were not important to their electors.” Pombo’s campaign director Brian Kennedy could not be reached for comment.
Another setback for Pombo was the accusation that he received campaign contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s clientele. There is no disagreement that scandals gave Republican candidates a bad name this election cycle, and Pombo’s alleged involvement with Abramoff scarred his campaign early on.
Despite the nasty environmentalist propaganda and the huge sums the green’s spent, McNerney’s triumph could have been avoided had Pombo’s campaign realized their problems earlier.