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House climate caucus loses its Republican co-founder and almost half its GOP members

Midterms decimate Republican membership in climate caucus.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) co-founded the House Climate Solutions Caucus in 2016. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) co-founded the House Climate Solutions Caucus in 2016. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Several Republicans who joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus in the run-up to this year’s midterm elections — yet had poor voting records on climate and the environment — lost their bids to return to Congress, according to the latest voting results from Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Even the co-founder of the group, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL) couldn’t retain his seat in a midterm election that saw Democrats take firm control of the House of Representatives.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an advocacy group that spurred the creation of the House caucus, said Wednesday that Curbelo’s loss “does not signal the end of the caucus.”

“We’re confident other Republicans will step up to lead, and the existing and potential members are invested in continuing bipartisan work on climate,” Citizens’ Climate Lobby Executive Director Mark Reynolds said in a statement. “To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Climate Solutions Caucus are greatly exaggerated.”

At the start of the new Congress in January 2019, the number of Republican members of the climate caucus will decrease to 24, a 47 percent percent decline in its GOP membership numbers. The caucus currently boasts 90 members, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

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No Democratic members of the climate caucus lost their reelection bids, although two Democratic members are retiring and one is running for a higher office. Democratic membership in the caucus will decrease from 45 to 42, effective January.

A total of 13 of Republican members of the climate caucus lost their reelection bids, according to current election results. Seven Republican members of the caucus are retiring at the end of their current terms. One Republican member — Mark Sanford (R-SC) — lost his bid for the Republican nomination for his district.

A long list of Democrats are waiting to join the caucus. Many of the Democrats who defeated Republicans on Tuesday are climate champions, but they will not be permitted to join at this time. The caucus won’t add any new Democrats until the numbers reach parity again, according to the rules.

Unlike congressional caucuses that draw their members mostly or entirely from one party, Climate Solutions follows a “Noah’s Ark” model in which a Democrat could only join if a Republican does too.

The Climate Solutions Caucus was formed in early 2016 after a volunteer with the advocacy group Citizens’ Climate Lobby approached Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) about establishing a bipartisan group to develop climate solutions. Deutch eventually teamed up with Curbelo to co-found the caucus.

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The caucus has been widely criticized for admitting Republicans — some of whom lost their reelection bids on Tuesday — who are seen as wanting to put on a display of caring about climate change, without actually having to follow that up with action.

The biggest shakeup to the group occurred in Florida where Curbelo, the group’s co-founder, was defeated by Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D), a former college administrator.

The Sierra Club applauded Mucarsel-Powell’s victory. “The climate crisis requires action from our leaders and that means rejecting the ploys of corporate polluters and investing in clean energy, not talking a big game while voting to push a dirty fuels agenda by approving the Keystone XL pipeline or increasing LNG exports,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement Tuesday night.

In 2015, Curbelo voted for the Keystone XL Pipeline Act, which would automatically approved the tar sands pipeline project. That same year, Curbelo also voted for a bill, the LNG Permitting Certainty and Transparency Act, which would expedite liquefied natural gas export applications

More recently, in July, Curbelo introduced the Market Choice Act, a climate bill that would put a price on carbon. Last month, though, Curbelo, drew criticism for using language often employed by climate deniers to diminish the arguments of climate activists. In a tweet, he labeled people who want to discuss the connection between Hurricane Michael and climate change as “alarmists.”

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“We targeted Curbelo specifically because he was perceived as a Republican voice of reason on climate even as he criticized ‘alarmists’ on hurricanes wreaking havoc on his state,” R.L. Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote and a frequent critic of the caucus, said Wednesday in a statement.

Climate Hawks Vote is a grassroots-funded group that supports candidates and elected officials whom it identifies as making climate change a top priority.

Miller said her group thought there was a good possibility that the caucus, under the leadership of Curbelo, could produce “a badly pre-compromised bill such as the Americans for Carbon Dividends proposal, trading both a waiver of Exxon’s liability for its past acts and waiver of EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for a low carbon tax.”

“I have no idea who will lead the caucus now — or whether it will simply fade away into the obscurity that it deserves,” Miller said.

Other Republicans caucus members who fell to defeat were Reps. Barbara Comstock (VA), Mike Coffman (CO), Claudia Tenney (NY), Peter Roskam (IL), and Randy Hultgren (IL).

During his reelection bid, Roskam emphasized that he was concerned enough about climate change to join the Climate Solutions Caucus and “be a part of a group that’s trying to come up with a remedy.” However, Roskam has earned a shockingly low 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters, based on the group’s environmental scorecard of 2017 voting records.

And both Coffman and Tenney previously applauded Trump for moving to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Tenney called it a “good sign of leadership” in an interview with Syracuse.com. Coffman argued for a “renegotiated climate treaty.”

Comstock, who lost to Jennifer Wexton on Tuesday to represent Virginia’s 10th congressional, joined the climate caucus in 2017. Trump’s unpopularity in the district made her reelection efforts far more difficult.

Despite joining the caucus, Comstock earned a 9 percent rating from League of Conservation Voters (LCV) for her voting record in 2017. She has a 5 percent lifetime score from the environmental group.

Wexton, on the other hand, has a 97 percent lifetime score from the LCV for her work in the Virginia general assembly.

In a congressional vote this summer that demonstrated the lack of a consensus among caucus members, only four GOP members of the caucus — Reps. Curbelo, Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), Mia Love (UT), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL) — voted in July against an anti-carbon tax resolution sponsored by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).

The other 39 Republican members of the caucus voted in favor of the resolution denouncing a tax on carbon emissions.

In welcoming the election of Mucarsel-Powell, who defeated Curbelo, the Sierra Club described her a a “true climate champion.”

“Mucarsel-Powell’s victory is a reminder that the American people want Congress to act, not merely dish out rhetoric when it comes to climate action,” Sierra Club leader Brune said.

UPDATE: Article updated at 11:30 a.m. ET on November 7, 2018 to include a statement from R.L. Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote.