Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe stood on the Senate floor last year to declare 2009 "the year of the skeptic."
Turns out he jumped the gun.
This year, a host of Republican Senate hopefuls are trumpeting their rejection of climate science on the campaign trail. Christine O'Donnell became the latest to enter the spotlight last week when she rode tea party support to knock off Rep. Mike Castle -- one of eight House Republicans who voted for cap-and-trade climate legislation last summer -- in Delaware's open-seat GOP Senate primary.
She joins Nevada's Sharron Angle -- who has dismissed man-made global warming as a "mantra of the left" -- Wisconsin's Ron Johnson -- who blames warming on "sun spots" -- Florida's Marco Rubio, Alaska's Joe Miller and Colorado's Ken Buck as tea party-backed Republican Senate candidates who reject the science connecting human greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.
But the tea partiers are not alone. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and challenger to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), says Americans need to "have the courage to examine the science of climate change." And at a debate last month in New Hampshire, all six Republicans seeking their party's nomination to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) expressed their skepticism, including former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, the eventual nominee.
As skeptics knock on the Senate door, many GOP climate moderates are headed out. Along with Gregg, Republican Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and George LeMieux (Fla.) are retiring at the end of this session. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- a Republican who acknowledges global warming but is leading the charge to block U.S. EPA from regulating greenhouse gases -- lost her party's nomination last month and will likely be gone next year.
The swelling rank of skeptics running for office stems from a public backlash against liberals' global warming "alarmism," said Inhofe spokesman Matt Dempsey. Democrats' attempts to pass greenhouse gas limits and the commercial success of Al Gore's climate science movie "An Inconvenient Truth" brought more scrutiny to the issue, Dempsey said.
And then there was "Climategate," the publication last November of a series of private e-mails between British climate scientists that skeptics say exposed holes in climate science and a conspiracy to hide them. The e-mails "vindicated Inhofe and everything he's been saying for the past seven years," Dempsey said. "That's why the bottom fell out on the global warming movement."
Gauging public sentiment on climate science is as difficult as it is politically contentious. A Gallup poll in March showed 46 percent of Americans believe global warming is a product of "natural causes," up from 36 percent in 2006. Another poll conducted in June by Stanford University researchers and funded by the National Science Foundation indicated three-fourths of Americans see the warming as a result of human activity.
Sherwood Boehlert, a retired House Republican from New York who now spends his days pushing Congress to tackle climate change, says the skeptics' ascendance is being driven less by public discontent than by powerful voices in the party hierarchy.
"You've got people in positions of prominence suggesting it's a hoax," said Boehlert, who was chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee before leaving office in 2006. "I don't know if that is out of sincere conviction or political convenience, but they find when they demagogue on the issue, they score some points."
Boehlert, singled out Inhofe, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) as influential skeptics.
Tony Massaro, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, says the skeptics' rise in the GOP goes beyond party leadership to a deliberate attempt to distort the public's perception of the science and the media's failure to properly cover it.
"I think it reflects a steady drumbeat by Fox News around the science of global warming and the coverage of the so-called 'Climategate' -- which turned out to be nothing," Massaro said. "The news media at first reported it ad nauseam, but when the investigation revealed that things had been taken out of context and the science was sound, the stories were buried on page 18."
Massaro also said he does not believe that skeptics are as prominent in the Republican Party as the primary results indicate.
"Millions of Republicans around the country know global warming is happening and much of it is human caused and we need to do something about it," Massaro said. "But they may not be the people who are participating in primaries in Alaska and Delaware."
DOA next year?
Regardless of how well the skeptics do against Democratic opponents in November, Dempsey says any climate change legislation brought in next year's Congress will be dead on arrival. Republicans are holding fast against it and more moderate Democrats are jumping ship, leaving the Obama administration and the environmental movement out in the cold.
But Boehlert is not ready to give up on his vision of a climate-friendly Republican Party. If the skeptics win in November, he predicted, they will be greeted in January with a tug-of-war with their party's remaining climate moderates -- such as Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Indiana's Richard Lugar -- over the party's climate policy.
And Boehlert is hoping some skeptics will come around after they take office.
"They haven't been exposed to the science all that much," Boehlert said. "They're not here, and when they get here people like me are going to show them a lot of information."