POLITICS:

Across the board, GOP Senate candidates shy away from cap and trade

Republican senators in Washington are not the only ones that are overwhelmingly opposing efforts to move a cap-and-trade bill, as the next wave of potential GOP officeholders has near-unanimously come out against the legislation.

In fact, there are virtually no major Republican Senate candidates running for office in 2010 that are in favor of the cap-and-trade climate bill.

That Republicans in solidly conservative states would run on anti-cap-and-trade platforms comes as no surprise. But the current crop of GOP candidates is primarily running in states that voted for President Obama last year and those states are seen as being somewhere between swing and solidly Democratic.

Even in states that are considered "green" and where in recent elections Republicans have worked hard to brandish their environmental credentials, nearly all the top-tier GOP candidates are openly voicing their opposition to the legislation.

Observers and activists say a lot of that opposition stems from pressure by a conservative base that is vehemently opposed to the legislation. But the positions of the candidates, they add, are also a clear signal that the general trajectory of the Republican Party as whole for the foreseeable future will be toward opposition of the climate bill.

"In the Republican primaries, it's going to be very important to Republican voters," said David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth. "On many different levels, Republican voters are either not convinced of the scientific issues or if they are, they think the bill in Congress is a monstrosity."

In some instances that GOP opposition has reached such a high level that even Republicans who as late as this year supported a cap-and-trade bill have now shifted their position to directly oppose the legislation.

That pressure has come from a number of angles including prominent organizations such as Club for Growth, which views the policy as being extremely harmful to the economy, the Tea Party activists, right-wing commentators and conservative voters in general.

Certainly, experts say, the climate change issue still sits well behind health care and perhaps the stimulus bill on the list of hot-button issues for GOP activists and candidates. But they say it has also become part of a litmus for GOP candidates and those who had previously supported such a policy have had trouble selling their candidacy to the conservative voters.

Polling has long shown that conservatives are far less supportive of climate change legislation than other voting blocks, but support for climate change legislation was barely an issue in previous cycles. In 2008, GOP candidates in a number of Democratic-leaning states indicated their openness to supporting the legislation and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) emerged as the presidential nominee from a crowded GOP field despite being an advocate of the bill.

Since then, both the political climate in the Republican Party and the economic climate has shifted significantly, increasing the issue's importance for Republican voters, activists say.

"These are pocketbook voters and where they get concerned is about how it's going to affect the economy," said Wayne Brough, vice president for research at FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has rallied opposition to the bill. "These people don't believe that these green jobs are going to suddenly appear and replace all the jobs that are going to disappear."

But Republican Party officials also say they do not see the position of their candidates as being solely the result of pressure from the base, arguing that being against the cap-and-trade bill is a winning political message for both conservative and key swing voters. "The Republicans would welcome a debate on this ... add this on to the trillion dollar stimulus, and the health care bill and you're giving Republicans three very potent issues," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Activist pressure builds on GOP candidates

One notable example of the kind of pressure that has been brought to bear on GOP candidates is in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist has for months taken heat over his previous backing of climate change legislation.

The Club for Growth, a powerful force in Republican primary politics, threw its support to former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary, citing in part Crist's support for cap-and-trade legislation. "Charlie Crist has repeatedly joined with big government liberals on major economic issues facing America today, from taxes to spending to cap-and-trade," the Club said in its endorsement statement.

The Obama administration and environmentalists in the past had used Crist as an example of a prominent Republican supporter of climate change legislation, using him along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to argue that support for the policy was bipartisan.

But Rubio has attacked Crist on the issue from almost the moment he entered the race and some Florida environmentalists have expressed concern that Crist appears to have ended his activism on the issue. Most notably, this summer he cancelled a high-profile state climate summit -- an event that was expected to bring climate activists from across the country to Florida.

Crist has not come out in opposition to the policy, but he also has been largely silent on the issue and has certainly not campaigned on it.

Despite the pressure, Crist is one of only two major GOP Senate candidates -- the other being Delaware's Mike Castle (R) -- who has not come out in opposition to the cap-and-trade bill. Castle voted in favor of the House version of the cap-and-trade bill and on his campaign Web site states that he continues to support the policy.

But Castle also has the luxury of not facing a primary challenge from the right and is viewed by GOP officials as by far the GOP's best hope of winning in Democratic-friendly Delaware. But Tea Party activists in Delaware, Brough of FreedomWorks said, continue to be upset over Castle's vote and he would not be surprised if they can make it an issue in the coming months.

Other GOP candidates have gone so far as to reverse their stance on the topic.

In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk -- currently the Republican front-runner for the Senate nomination -- was one of eight Republicans to vote for the House version of the bill earlier this year. The vote drew sharp criticism from conservatives and the uproar grew even louder after Kirk announced his Senate bid a few weeks later.

After several months in which Kirk tried to explain his House vote as being the best move for his suburban Chicago district, Kirk at a GOP rally earlier this year said flat out that he would not support the legislation as a senator.

In Connecticut, former Rep. Rob Simmons -- who is challenging Sen. Chris Dodd (D) -- openly described his previous support for cap and trade as a mistake and has recently campaigned against the proposal.

"I did a lot of listening, and concluded that I was wrong about two issues I supported in Congress: the Employee Free Choice Act (also known as 'card check') and 'cap and trade,'" Simmons wrote on his campaign blog last month. "After hearing more from the people who would be most affected by these bills, I became convinced they would cause more harm than good and I would oppose them in the Senate."

A number of other Republicans -- even those running in swing or solidly Democratic states -- have come out of the gate with opposition to cap and trade, with some speculating that those positions were in part to highlight their conservative credentials and avoid the same pressure faced by Crist and Kirk.

In California -- the state that environmentalists view as the trend setter on climate policy -- former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina told reporters this week that she views climate change as a "serious issue" but said lawmakers should continue to examine the science around it, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

"Carly takes the issue of climate change very seriously, she believes it's a problem that we should turn into an opportunity for job creation and innovation," said Fiorina campaign spokesman Julie Soderlund. "With regard with the specific bill that's moving its way through the Senate, Carly will not support it because it's a job killer."

Fiorina has already picked up the endorsement of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the most prominent climate skeptic in the Senate, though she has also been endorsed by lawmakers who have taken a more moderate position on the climate issue, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine.).

Fiorina is facing a primary challenge against state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who is opposed to cap-and-trade legislation and is touting himself as the established conservative in the race.

Likewise, in both Colorado and New Hampshire the two leading GOP candidates -- former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) and former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R), respectively -- are opposing cap and trade. Both states not only voted for Obama last year but also have a reputation for having an electorate where environmental issues can resonate.

And in Ohio, GOP nominee and former Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman in his platform describes cap and trade as a "job-killing tax," saying officials should instead focus on expanding the availability of all types of energy.

Is there a political danger?

Environmentalists and Washington Democrats argue that polling shows that most voters are in favor of addressing climate change and even support measures such as cap and trade and that the GOP will eventually pay a political price for staking out a position that puts them on a different page with most voters.

"I believe that Republicans have adopted a strategy that buys them momentum in the short term but makes them vulnerable in the long term," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters earlier this fall. Menendez and other Democrats have argued that voters want to see action on energy, the economy and a number of other issues and will punish political candidates that are seen as standing in the way of those items.

But Republican officials contend that the position of their Senate candidates is a reflection of not simply the conservative base's opposition but of a concern that stretches to independent and swing voters.

"When you consider the unemployment and the spending we've seen out of Washington, smart political strategists recognize that this could impede Democrats from winning elections next year," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pointing out that moderate Democrats have expressed hesitation over the measure.

Others in the party see it differently, arguing that there is a potentially political pitfall from being perceived as an anti-environmental candidate.

"The hardcore base is making a real issue out of this, but the smart guys within the Republican Party know that just getting the votes of the base is not going to be enough to win elections," said Jim DiPeso, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection. "They know that this catering to the base is not a ticket to victory, especially in those swing states.

"Just because independents are turning away from the Democrats, doesn't mean they're embracing the Republicans."

But DiPeso also said that even as some Republican candidates feel compelled to cater to the base at the moment, they may view the issue somewhat differently if political circumstances change or when they actually get to Capitol Hill.

"As we've seen through many campaigns, the kinds of things that people feel compelled to say in the heat of the campaign, are not well remembered when it's time to govern," DiPeso said. Adding, "Circumstances are going to change, between now and 2011, who knows where the economy is going to be."

With the elections a year away and some of the campaigns just now getting off the ground, it is impossible to predict exactly how many of those Republican Senate candidates will actually make it to Washington.

But if these candidates -- including those from "blue" states -- help expand the GOP majority next year, officials say, it will only grow the number of "no" votes on a Democratic-crafted climate bill. "If they say they're going to oppose it and they get elected, I think they're going to oppose it," said Keating of the Club for Growth.