In a suburban city hall three weeks ago, about a dozen Republicans in their 20s practiced their plans to make climate change a central issue for conservatives.
The Wisconsin students participated in a five-hour meeting with former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) to establish the groundwork for a campaign designed to recruit young conservatives who want to wrestle the climate issue away from Democrats.
The "training session" in Waukesha's city hall stretched the boundaries of an issue that is being challenged by some Wisconsin Republicans, like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who has warned that Democrats want to regulate carbon dioxide as it's exhaled by humans. The meeting, in Sensenbrenner's district, was held so the students could learn the details of a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
More broadly, the session drew on a desire by young activists to reshape their party into a bolder force that jumps out earlier on controversial issues like climate change and gay marriage, said Kelsie Wendelberger, a 20-year-old who volunteered for Republican Gov. Scott Walker's recall campaign and helped organize last month's meeting.
"I think this is an issue that we can head up," said Wendelberger, a Waukesha native who will be a junior at Wheaton College in Illinois next year. "We really have been trailing the Democratic Party for so long on a lot of different issues. I think this is something we can grasp."
Inglis, a Christian conservative from South Carolina, has chosen the reddest county in Wisconsin as a testing ground for an education campaign that has a goal of recruiting young activists to change GOP politics from the inside.
No county in the state gave Mitt Romney more votes in last year's presidential election. The former Massachusetts governor captured 67 percent of votes in Waukesha County, a Milwaukee suburb that relishes the idea of rejecting the state's wider support of Democratic presidents. President Obama beat Romney in Wisconsin by a margin of 53 to 46 percent.
It's not a coincidence that Inglis' group, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, has chosen the Republican stronghold of southeastern Wisconsin to launch its ground game. It's both symbolic and practical.
Targeting Paul Ryan
Conservative proponents of climate action are trying to contrast their ideas to Democratic climate policies, hoping to shake the liberal stigma off reducing emissions. They've attacked Obama's plan to regulate greenhouse gases at power plants, holding it out as an economically damaging effort that should prompt conservatives to find alternatives. Launching a field operation in a Republican redoubt enhances that message, organizers say. Wisconsin, moreover, has a history of conservation and is the birthplace of the Republican Party.
There's also a bigger strategy at work. The corner of the state includes Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) district. Supporters believe an ambitious push by young Republican voters could help Ryan keep an open mind about taxing carbon if a wider effort to reform the nation's tax codes is undertaken.
"He's a Jack Kemp Republican," Inglis said of Ryan, referring to the late New York congressman whose conservative view of economics overlapped with an independent streak on matters like immigration. Ryan worked for Kemp as a speechwriter.
"We think the substance of what we're talking about appeals to people who understand real economics. We're talking about an economics solution, not an environmental solution," Inglis said.
A small coalition of conservative think tanks are advocating for a carbon tax, because the revenue could be used to cut other taxes, like those on corporations or personal income, while also attempting to pre-empt EPA carbon standards on power plants.
The training session in Wisconsin included three student interns, who joined the Energy and Enterprise Initiative about a month ago, and about nine student "field fellows," who will work about five hours a week. The group plans to write letters to Ryan and other state Republicans, like Rep. Tom Petri, whose district is in east-central Wisconsin. It's also planning an August event with about 100 people to promote taxing carbon. Door-to-door campaigning, social media and traditional phone calling will also be pursued.
"I don't expect Ryan or Petri to speak out publicly on the climate change issue. But we're hoping to at least try to get a sit-down private discussion with one of them," Wendelberger said. "And I think they'd be open to that, especially if they get a letter from 150 young conservatives from their district who are concerned about climate change. I think that shows a lot."
Inglis' group is planning to expand its ground efforts to other "target states" after ramping up the Wisconsin campaign. It will also buy Web advertising in Florida in coming weeks.
Tea parties and young Republicans? Not so much
The emerging campaign in Wisconsin underscores the divergence among Republicans on climate change. On one side, many Republican lawmakers challenge the scientific findings about man-made warming, including Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who said recently that proponents are exaggerating the possible impacts.
On the other are conservatives like Brett McNeil, who serves as the communications director for the Wisconsin Federation of College Republicans. The group's executive board recently voted for the first time to publicly state that conservatives should be proposing ways to address climbing temperatures, rather than accept Obama's power plant rules.
"I think we come at it from two angles. One, there is an innate risk. ... The evidence overwhelmingly seems to be indicating that we should be looking into it," said McNeil, who also serves as one of Inglis' interns. "And No. 2, we have a silent majority of people here that believe it's real and there's no reason that we shouldn't be talking [about it]."
The federation didn't take a position on how to reduce emissions. Yet its assertion that the Republican Party should offer "market-based" methods to address climate change is in sharp contrast to the GOP's absence on the issue. The party's platform developed last year, for example, doesn't mention climate change, except as an attack on Obama.
Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy and operations for the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, begins his discussions with student groups by asking each person how he or she feels about climate change. Usually, he says, they believe that humans are contributing to it, but they don't know how to address it without hurting the economy or acquiescing to Democratic policies.
He has to restrain himself until everyone has finished before providing his pitch: an optimistic scenario in which Republicans fight Democrats and climate change at the same time using what he describes as conservative principles to lower harmful taxes on income and business.
"An elected official may not fully understand the amount of young conservative support that would accrue to them after leading on climate change," he said. "It's not readily apparent when you go to tea party rallies that there's this large group of young conservatives that are singing a slightly different tune -- same principles but a different outcome that acknowledges and wants to tackle this issue.
"These kids want to show that they're out there," he said.
Cold call on climate: 'awkward'
Appealing to young voters is a message with resonance. Republicans and their pollsters acknowledge their disadvantage among age groups under 30. Obama won that category by 24 points over Romney last year, continuing a trend that Democrats have enjoyed to varying degrees for decades. The advantage may have helped Obama win Florida last year, a crucial state that teetered into his column by 1 point, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. He can thank young voters, who gave Obama twice as many votes as Romney.
But their draw toward Democrats might be less about political loyalty and more about their messages on key points, said David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
"These are people who do not have solidified partisan attachments. It's much harder to change someone's lifetime voting practices when they're in their 40s and 50s," he said. "I think they're more open to politicians who will listen to them. And something like climate change I think is definitely one of those issues where Republicans would be very wise to listen to these young Republicans."
Still, the optimistic message about conservative action on climate change didn't harmonize with everyone.
Wendelberger and McNeil were in charge of finding about a dozen field fellows for Inglis' group. They called friends and tapped the ranks of College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, which McNeil attends, and at other schools. The recruiting efforts sometimes ended uncomfortably.
"I let [McNeil] give me a good spiel on it, a good 10 or 15 minutes. Then I said it doesn't work for me," recalled Noah Cascio, a Parkside student who describes himself as "non-interventionist" libertarian.
A carbon tax, he added, is a government infringement on personal liberty that is "basically just a gun to the head."
For her part, Wendelberger would approach acquaintances -- usually the kind who devote free time to conservative politics -- with cautious probes about climate change. Many seemed open and were awarded with an intimate five-hour meeting with a former congressman.
Others, not so much.
"We had some guys who were really active in conservative efforts just say, 'Oh, it's not real. It's a hoax,'" she recalled. "And we were like, 'Ohhh-K, awkward.'"
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.