Why Nebraska’s ‘Top Climate Denier’ Congressman Could Lose His Seat In November

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.

Seeking his ninth term in office, the Republican congressman deemed Nebraska’s “top climate denier” by the state’s most prominent progressive grassroots organization seems to be getting a run for his money from a veteran state senator.

Congressman Lee Terry (R-NE) is currently in a dead heat with challenger Brad Ashford, trailing the Democratic state senator by one percentage point, according to a poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and released last week. The automated poll put Ashford at 46 percent and Terry at 45 percent, with a margin or error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.

Terry's challenger, Nebraska state Sen. Brad Ashford (D).

Terry’s challenger, Nebraska state Sen. Brad Ashford (D).

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bill Wolf

Unseating Terry has become something of a priority among national Democrats, now more than ever before in the Congressman’s eight terms in office. The House Majority PAC, a group that seeks to elect Democrats in potentially close races, has reportedly sent $215,000 to television stations in Omaha to reserve advertising time for the campaign. The DCCC has also put Ashford, who has served 16 years in Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature, in its highly competitive “Red to Blue” program, which offers financial and strategic support to candidates seeking to unseat Republicans.

Part of that priority could have to do with the fact that Nebraska will become the battleground state for a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline in the months following the election. In February, environmentalists there successfully convinced a District Court judge that the Gov. David Heineman unconstitutionally approved the pipeline’s proposed route through the state. Because of that Nebraska ruling, the Obama Administration said it would not make a decision on the pipeline until after the November elections.

If Lee Terry is still in office, he will be one more influential state voice gunning for Keystone XL’s approval. Indeed, Terry has been one of the most aggressive voices in Congress in support of the 1,700 pipeline, which would bring more than 300,000 gallons of Canadian tar sands oil down to refineries in Texas and Louisiana every day. Terry has been trying to speed up the pipeline’s approval process since 2011, when he unsuccessfully attempted to force the Obama administration to cut the State Department from the equation and give the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission just 30 days to approve the pipeline.

Environmentalists oppose Keystone XL pipeline not only because of the high risk of a tar sands oil spill, but also because of the disproportionately large amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the tar sands oil mining and refining process. Scientists say the process pumps out three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil, and environmentalists don’t think the United States should condone such a process if it is serious about fighting climate change.

Terry has called himself a “light green,” and has said that his policy decisions will be based on “where the science goes.” However, he has publicly rejected the fact that scientists overwhelmingly accept that climate change is real and caused by humans. “Is it really 97 to 3?” Terry told Esquire Magazine, referencing a 2013 study of 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers which found a 97 percent consensus that human activity is causing climate change. “I don’t think so,” he said.

It is currently unclear whether Ashford would support the pipeline’s approval if elected. In March, he was one of 29 state senators who signed a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in support of the pipeline. But Jane Kleeb, director of the progressive group BOLD Nebraska, said she doesn’t think the letter holds much weight.

“We asked our Democratic Senators about that letter, and to be honest it looks like they didn’t pay much focus on that,” she said. “The problem with the [Nebraska state Legislature] is that they are so exhausted in the pipeline that they don’t want to really talk about it.”

Kleeb said she thinks Ashford is a moderate, and if elected wouldn’t be an outspoken or aggressive advocate for Keystone XL. Instead, he would likely be more concerned about the route of the pipeline and landowner’s rights than stopping the actual use of tar sands oil. At the same time, she said, Ashford “will actually care about climate change as a science, as something that we actually have to be fighting.”

Either way, the Rothenberg Political Report says the race is one to watch, rating it as a toss-up that tilts Republican.


A previous version of this story mentioned that former state senator Chip Maxwell was also running for Terry’s seat. Maxwell dropped out of the race in late July.

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