Taking On The Republicans’ ‘Climate Champion’

From right: U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows. CREDIT: AP PHOTOS/ROBERT F. BUKATY/MICHAEL C. YORK
From right: U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows. CREDIT: AP PHOTOS/ROBERT F. BUKATY/MICHAEL C. YORK

Maine’s longtime senator Susan Collins (R) doesn’t lash out against Environmental Protection Agency “overreach” or decry the “war on coal.” In fact, she has repeatedly supported conservation and environmental protection measures over her nearly three terms in the U.S. Senate and has earned the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters. While Collins has broadly supported the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, however, she has opposed specific efforts to rein in air pollution. She has voted against rules that would limit toxic air pollution that travels across state lines. And she has voted to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring more than 800,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands crude into the U.S. every day.

This is the complete picture Shenna Bellows wants Mainers to remember when they go to the polls this November. Bellows, the Democrat vying for Collins’ long-held Senate seat, is running on a pro-environment platform that puts climate change at the forefront. And despite the fact that Collins is widely seen as an environmentally-friendly Republican, Bellows says she’s just not good enough for a state like Maine, which is particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change.

In some ways, Republican Susan Collins is an anomaly.

“In some ways, Republican Susan Collins is an anomaly,” Bellows told ThinkProgress. “She is representing a blue state with progressive values on the environment and across the board, and she has gained support by taking half-measures.”

While polls show Bellows as a long-shot, her candidacy sparks an interesting examination of environmentally moderate candidates. Collins is able to maintain unwavering support among voters and environmental groups, and has done so by straying from the common, anti-climate Republican rhetoric to vote with Democrats on most environmental issues. But is moderation in Maine’s best interest?

Bellows doesn’t think so. “She has failed to be a climate champion,” she said. “And Maine needs climate champions in the Senate.”

Warming And Pollution In Maine

There is a reason Maine is called Vacationland. Its humid continental climate makes for warm, pleasant summers, and brisk, ski-worthy winters. Fourteen National Natural Landmarks sit within the state — mossy bogs, towering mountains, small islands teeming with wildflowers. Its famed Sebago Lake is magnificently unspoiled, with one of the clearest night skies in the country.

Maine’s natural resources are not just beautiful. They’re central to the state’s $52 billion economy. Agriculture, commercial fishing, forestry, tourism, and outdoor recreation all play large parts — though lobstering, which generated over $364 million in dock value in 2013, is probably the most iconic.

Whether by global warming or the threat of physical pollution, all of these industries are at risk of decline in Maine. The proposed Portland Pipeline reversal, which could be used to pump tar sands crude oil from Canada to the U.S., would run directly alongside Sebago Lake, threatening tourism if a spill were to occur. The shrimp industry is suffering, as warmer ocean waters make the Gulf of Maine more hospitable to predators and less hospitable to zooplankton, the shrimps’ food supply.

A scientist holds a juvenile lobster while doing research on Orr’s Island in Harpswell, Maine. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
A scientist holds a juvenile lobster while doing research on Orr’s Island in Harpswell, Maine. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

Even the famous lobster industry is at immediate risk from climate change, with a recent University of Maine study showing that the number of baby lobsters settling off the state’s coast has declined by more than half from their 2007 levels. Scientists cited rising ocean temperature in Maine as a distinct possibility for the decline, noting temperature increases of .26 degrees Celsius per year since 2004 — a dramatic rise from the .026 degree Celsius average increase they were seeing each year since 1982.

Maine is feeling other impacts of warming, too, according to Bellows. Lyme disease, once only present in the southernmost counties of Maine, has been spreading up the coast and westward and is now endemic to all sixteen counties in the state. Jellyfish have invaded local waters, primarily Casco Bay. Farmers, she said, are concerned about the possibility of increased extreme weather, and changes happening at their micro-climate level.

The issues of pollution and climate change are two of the most direct threats to Maine’s economy and public health, and need to be dealt with aggressively, Bellows said. And as a born-and-bred Mainer, she sees the threat facing the state’s iconic lobsters as particularly personal and believes Collins hasn’t done enough to fight the warming that may be contributing to their decline.

“To see Maine’s most famous industry threatened by climate change, contrasted with the lack of leadership at the national level to be a truly climate champion, that’s why I’m running,” Bellows said.

How Good Is Good Enough?

When Bellows talks about lack of leadership, she is talking about Collins, who has served the state of Maine for 18 years.

Collins, however, is not your typical climate denying GOP Senator — she’s not a climate denier at all. Indeed, Collins’ stance on the environment is unlike most other Republican Senators because more often than not, she votes to protect it.

Because of this and other socially progressive positions (she supports marriage equality, for example), Collins is widely liked in blue-state Maine. She polls miles ahead of Bellows, with the most recent putting Collins ahead by 55 percentage points. In June, she was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), a political advocacy organization whose sole mission is to elect pro-environmental candidates.

She has really stuck her neck out there to be the only Republican to do this.

“We were really excited about endorsing Susan Collins for reelection,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president for government affairs at LCV, told ThinkProgress. “It’s not just that she votes right on so many issues, it’s that she’s shown leadership. … She’s voted repeatedly to allow EPA to move forward on regulating carbon emissions, and how she votes on this issue is incredibly important.”

Along with introducing bills on land conservation and encouraging clean cook stoves, Collins has broken with her fellow Republicans to vote against their attempts to strip the EPA of its authority to fight climate change. In 2013, she was the only Republican to oppose Sen. Jim Inhofe’s (R-OK) amendment that would prohibit the EPA from putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and was the only Republican to vote against a similar amendment proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in 2011.

Portland Harbor, a potential export point for Canadian tar sands crude. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Portland Harbor, a potential export point for Canadian tar sands crude. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

“She has really stuck her neck out there to be the only Republican to do this,” Sittenfeld said. “She has bucked her party leadership and has been willing to be the only one, and that has been commendable.”

Collins’ spokesperson Lance Dutson told ThinkProgress that Collins has also introduced environmental protection measures with Democrats, including one to to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full and permanent funding, and another to reduce emissions of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases, including methane.

“Democrats want to work with Senator Collins because they know she not only cares about our environment, but because they know that she is a powerful leader who will work to ensure these bills become law,” Dutson said.

In School, 67 Percent Is Still A ‘D’

For all of this, Collins has earned a lifetime score of 67 percent from LCV — 10 percentage points higher than the average U.S. Senate score, and the best of any Senate Republican. But Bellows says this is not enough for a state changing as quickly as Maine, which has warmed more than any other state besides Vermont in the last 30 years.

“She’s better than most Republicans,” Bellows said of Collins. “But when I was in school, a 67 was still a ‘D.’”

Collins holds a 67 percent score for a reason. As Brad Johnson notes in Hill Heat, she has been inconsistent about her dedication to fighting climate change, voting numerous times to allow filibusters of climate legislation during Obama’s first term. In 2011, she voted for a bill to delay greenhouse-gas regulations for two years, and voted against an amendment calling for a price on carbon.

“These votes arguably made the future demise of climate legislation in the Senate inevitable,” Johnson wrote.

Collins’ silence on some issues also raises questions regarding whether she is willing to take leaps to protect the climate. On the EPA’s landmark proposal for regulations limiting carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants, Collins has only said that she will “carefully review” them. Collins is also the only member of Maine delegation who has not weighed in on the Portland Pipeline proposal.

“Collins … has in the past been considered somewhat forward-thinking on climate change,” writes Zack Anchors in the Portland Phoenix. “[But] that only makes sense if you compare her to the rest of her party, which has taken the same obstructionist stance against climate change legislation that it took toward health care reform. The reality is that Collins’ record on climate change is spotty.”

A Reign Difficult To Change

With Maine being a historically blue state with a natural resource-based economy, it seems expected that its voters would lean left on environmental issues. So why are voters continually going for Collins?

“When people have an image of a particular candidate or elected official, it’s very difficult to change that,” Amy Fried, a professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono, told Maine’s NPR News network last week. “Sen. Collins has a very strong image of being independent minded.”

As the NPR report notes, Collins has built her reputation on being a moderate Republican. That has attracted the endorsements of groups like the League of Conservation Voters, which are increasingly endorsing more and more Democrats due to the polarization of environmental issues in Washington. Indeed, Collins is the only Republican candidate endorsed by the LCV in the 2014 election cycle.

“Environmental measures — the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act — used to be passed by overwhelming majorities with support from both sides of the aisle,” Sittenfeld said. “It’s very disappointing that the Republican party as a whole has strayed so far from its commitment to protecting the environment.”

When people have an image of a particular candidate or elected official, it’s very difficult to change that.

Maine is no stranger to the increasingly anti-environment Republican party either. The state’s governor, Paul LePage, is arguably the embodiment of that trend: He’s opposed efforts to increase energy efficiency, tried to roll back renewable energy targets, moved to opt out of anti-smog regulations, vetoed a bill creating a climate adaptation working group, and agreed with a radio talk show host that climate science a “hoax” and “lying science,” before touting the benefits that climate change will have on Maine.

“We are very eager to get to a point where there are more Republicans like Collins that are deserving [of our endorsement],” Sittenfeld added.

But Bellows is likeable, and has positions that in any other blue state would probably secure her a fighting chance for a win, according to Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter.

“What’s not to like?” she asked. “[But] she picked the wrong race and the wrong opponent.”

And while Bellows has good positions on the environment, Sittenfeld said LCV was more supportive of Collins’ 18-year history in Maine. “She has been our friend,” Sittenfeld said, “and we stick with our friends.”

The Race Is On

If Mainers do decide they need a U.S. Senator with stronger positions on climate change and the environment, Bellows only has three months to convince them. To do that, she’s taking a 24-day, 350-mile walk across the state to draw attention to her candidacy, walking through 63 communities from the northern border to New Hampshire.

Bellows, who started the walk last Sunday, hopes that the trip will allow her to connect with more rural voters. Part of that is personal — she grew up poor in rural Hancock, Maine, in a house without electricity or running water. She worked through high school at both a lobster pound and a local Subway as a sandwich artist, eventually earning a scholarship to Middlebury College in Vermont.

After college, she worked at an economics consulting firm before joining the Peace Corps and eventually AmeriCorps. Most recently, she has served as the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maine for the last eight years.

“I understand that what comes first for people, particularly in rural areas, is their jobs,” she said. “So it’s really important that the work being done around climate change and the fishing industries recognize the need for fisherman and lobstermen to preserve their livelihood, and that the policies that we pursue help them do that.”  If she’s elected, Bellows says she’d be a strong advocate for climate change on a national level. She supports the EPA’s proposed regulations on carbon pollution, and is opposed to approving the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. On a local level, she says she wants Maine to be a “world leader in conservation and renewable energy,” and would look for new investments in solar and “properly sited wind.”

That is, of course, only if Mainers decide that’s what they want.

“Maybe people are intimidated by climate change deniers in drawing the really strong connection between it and what’s happening in our state,” Bellows said. “But I’m running a strong campaign on climate. I think it’s a winning issue.”


This post has been updated to correct the university that Bellows attended. It is Middlebury College in Vermont, not Newbury College in Massachusetts.