These Republican Lawmakers Are Turning To Climate Action To Help Keep Their Seats

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JIM COLE
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JIM COLE

For most Senate Republicans, climate change is an anathema: 70 percent of Republicans in the Senate deny the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans are the main cause.

But a growing number of liberal and moderate Republican voters are concerned about climate change and want their elected officials to reflect that concern. And that leaves Republicans in tight campaigns for reelection with an interesting choice: embrace climate action, long seen as a liberal stance, or risk losing crucial voters.

Some Republicans have already made that choice — and they’re pivoting toward the center on climate policy. Early this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) filed an amendment to the 2017 energy bill specifying that climate change is real and that human activity contributes to the problem. Notably, the amendment fails to quantify how much of a role humans play in climate change, but it does state that Congress has a responsibility in taking actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions and support clean-energy technology.

The amendment was co-sponsored by four Republican senators — Mark Kirk (IL), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Susan Collins (ME) and Rob Portman (OH). Three of those senators — Kirk, Ayotte, and Portman — are currently running tight campaigns for reelection against opponents that tout strong records in environment and climate policy among their accomplishments.

“A Republican in any tight reelection bid could embrace climate action as a means of swaying undecided, moderate voters who may think the position that climate change is not occurring is too far fetched,” Michelle Pautz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told ThinkProgress. “By acknowledging climate change, a candidate could appeal to voters who think it is ridiculous that a candidate does not agree with the overwhelming consensus of peer-reviewed scientific research that documents climate change is happening.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

Ayotte, who is facing stiff competition for her seat from current New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, is perhaps the Republican senator most aggressively embracing climate and environmental action as a part of her campaign platform. In addition to co-sponsoring Graham’s newest amendment, Ayotte was the first Republican senator to speak out in favor of the Clean Power Plan, and is a member of the Senate Energy and Environment Working Group — alongside Kirk, Graham, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) — which was formed to “focus on ways we can protect our environment and climate while also bolstering clean energy innovation that helps drive job creation.”

“Senator Ayotte co-sponsored this amendment because she believes climate change is real and that Congress should address it,” Chloe Rockow, press secretary for Ayotte, said in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress. “In addition to helping found the Senate Energy and Environmental Working Group, she has voted multiple times in support of addressing climate change, crossed party lines to protect our environment from harmful pollutants, and helped pass measures to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund and boost energy efficiency.”

Other Republicans are noticing Ayotte’s environmental focus: On Wednesday, Republican political donor Jay Faison — who has made clean energy and climate a key issue for gaining his support — announced that he would endorse Ayotte, as well as Ohio’s Portman, for reelection.

These 4 Republican Senators Are Forming A Group To Tackle Climate ChangeClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File The environment just got a boost from an unlikely source: Senate…thinkprogress.orgPortman, for his part, sponsored an energy efficiency bill which was signed into law last year. But Portman has also been a vocal opponent of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and voted “no” on an an amendment last year that said that “human activity significantly” contributes to climate change, arguing that he is not sure how much of a role humans are playing in the problem. Portman faces a challenge from Democrat Ted Strickland, who championed renewable energy and solar power during his time as Ohio governor. Current polls show Strickland with a razor-thin lead over Portman.

Illinois’ Kirk — who is up against Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a lawmaker a lifetime score of 85 percent on the environment from the League of Conservation Voters — has publicly waffled on his views on climate change, though his support of Graham’s amendment suggests that he now is of the position that climate change is both real and caused, at least in part, by human activity. His voting track record, however, is less than stellar: In 2015, he voted to overturn the Clean Water Rule, which would protect the water of nearly a third of Americans, and voted numerous times to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Kirk did break with party lines over the Clean Power Plan, however, voting against Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) resolution that sought to block the EPA’s carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, which have been viewed by many as the cornerstone of President Obama’s domestic climate policy.

Sen. Mark Krk (R-IL) CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File
Sen. Mark Krk (R-IL) CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File

These Republican senators’ semi-embrace of climate mirrors a small but marked shift in the views of Republican voters. According to a new survey conducted by public opinion researchers at Yale University and George Mason University, the percentage of conservative Republican voters that consider climate change a real threat has increased dramatically in recent years, up 19 percentage points since 2014, which is the largest shift of any group measured in the survey. Currently, 47 percent of conservative Republican voters consider climate change a pressing threat — and that number only increases as voters become more moderate.

“Republicans are not a monolithic block of global warming policy opponents,” the survey said, noting that a majority of liberal to moderate Republican voters — 70 percent — believe climate change is happening (though just half of those voters think that humans are the primary driver of the problem).

“If either Republicans or Democrats are in a tight race in the general, it means that the median voter in the state is more to the center than his or her party,” Christopher Mooney, director of the W. Russell Arrington Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois, Springfield, told ThinkProgress.

In many cases, moving to the center on issues like climate or the environment is a less dangerous move than pivoting on highly-moral issues, like abortion or gay marriage, or economic issues, like raising taxes. Taking a pro-environment stance can garner favor with moderate voters without forcing a candidate to take too many firm positions — Mooney referred to the environment as akin to “mom’s apple pie,” or something that is easy for voters to like.

“It’s a fairly squishy concept — what does it mean to be pro-environment? It sounds good without being too specific,” he said.

These people are probably just out in front of their party, not necessarily antithetical to what their party stands for

And in some cases, senators can espouse support for climate science without alienating fossil fuel interests. In Ohio, where Portman faces stiff competition for his seat, fracking is big business — and since natural gas releases half of the greenhouse emissions of coal when burned (though multiple studies have found that methane leaks and flaring often erase those benefits), Portman can situate himself as pro-climate without being anti-fracking, at least in some circles.

“By controlling the way the problem is defined, you can propose the solution that fits that definition,” Pautz said. “In Ohio, fracking and natural gas production are playing a big role in the state’s energy industry — particularly in eastern Ohio — and natural gas is not as damaging to the environment as coal production, so a candidate can come out supporting climate change action and advocate natural gas at the same time.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to say whether pivoting toward the center on the environment will help boost these candidates to victory in November. Environment and climate are low-priority concerns for most voters, even among Independents — the sorts of voters that candidates in tight races need to attract. According to the recent Yale/George Mason University survey, global warming was among the bottom priorities for Republican and Independent voters when deciding who to vote for for president, and the same might hold true when it comes to electing a senator.

“Environmental issues and climate change are rarely so salient that they will decide election outcomes in recent decades, so candidates generally stay away from emphasizing them, particularly when the economy is routinely rated as more important to voters,” Pautz said. And even if their pro-environmental rhetoric helps them get elected, Pautz noted that it doesn’t guarantee these Republicans will hold true to those promises in Congress.

“We all know it’s easy to promise all sorts of things in a campaign and then not pursue those promises in office,” she said. “Since Congress is struggling to pass legislation on topics that used to unite Republicans and Democrats, I doubt seriously we will see any environmental legislation in the foreseeable future as it’s much more politically divisive.”

Still, with a voting base showing an increasing concern regarding climate change, climate-friendly Republican legislators might be leading their party in a new direction, rather than abandoning the party completely.

“These people are probably just out in front of their party, not necessarily antithetical to what their party stands for,” Mooney said.