Signs of a conservative backlash to Democratic initiatives are increasing as Senate sponsors release an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions. The charged political environment potentially complicates efforts to convince a handful of Republicans to support the measure.
As Utah Republicans were replacing veteran Sen. Bob Bennett Saturday with a new conservative primary candidate, a separate surprise shift to the right was taking place in Maine, home to two Republican senators considered crucial to the carbon effort.
Maine's GOP convention replaced its modest party platform Saturday with a last-minute substitute that seeks defeat of federal cap-and-trade efforts and calls for an investigation into "the warming myth."
The three-page document, which was approved by a majority of the 1,800 party members estimated to be attending, recognizes the conservative tea party movement and promotes eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, opposes abortion and gay marriage, and warns against "one world government."
"Overall, the general feeling is that the Republican establishment of Maine are RINOs [Republican In Name Only] and that they do not reflect the actual membership of the Republican Party," said Andrew Ian Dodge, the Maine coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. The substitute platform, he added, was not an organized attempt by his chapter of the diffuse movement.
The recasting of Maine's Republican principles comes as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) are actively seeking the support of Maine's senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, for a carbon bill that has little chance of receiving 60 votes without the help of moderate Republicans.
Not Republican enough
Details of the legislation were released late yesterday. The measure seeks reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020, by 42 percent in 2030, and by 83 percent in 2050. That would be done in part by placing a price of at least $12 on each ton of carbon released by large facilities in the electric sector next year. Manufacturing and transportation sectors would be added later.
To offset rising energy costs, the bill would provide rebates to users of electricity, natural gas and home heating oil. Additional rebates, amounting to 2.5 percent of the allowance auction revenue, would be available for low-income residents, and 12.5 percent of revenue would go to eligible Social Security recipients.
Snowe and Collins have resisted signing on as co-sponsors, despite long-held beliefs that Congress must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Both senators are regarded as often-reliable swing votes on Democratic initiatives, including last year's $787 billion stimulus package that would have failed without their support.
They've received some stinging conservative criticism even though both senators refused to support the Democrats' controversial health care plan that passed earlier this year.
"Probably the reason there is a tea party movement in Maine is Snowe," Dodge said. "I don't even know why she bothers to call herself a Republican."
Unlike Utah, Maine is not re-electing either of its senators this year. There are other differences: Utah's unique election rules allow state party convention participants to winnow the primary field down to just two candidates. Bennett was caught in that crossfire, in part for working with Democrats on health care reform, a measure he did not support in the end.
Snowe not looking over her right shoulder
Asked yesterday if future votes on climate and energy legislation could put his GOP colleagues in that same sort of danger, Bennett said, "I won't make any comment about what might happen in any other state."
Snowe and Collins are less vulnerable to the demands of a small number of conservative activists, and can take their chances with the broader Republican electorate during the primaries. That's a test both senators have passed easily in the past.
Although Maine's Republican Party chairman, Charlie Webster, said conservatives are angry -- "angry, that's the word" -- at the Democratic-dominated state Legislature, that doesn't carry over to the state's popular senators.
"I don't see them in any way being jeopardized," Webster said, adding that he doesn't expect the senators to "base any decisions on what the Republican platform in Maine says."
"They won't vote for a large climate change bill," he added later. "If legislation is passed in Washington dealing with the climate issue, it will be reasonable, or Snowe and Collins won't vote for it. It'll be acceptable to most people in Maine, or it won't be passed -- and I don't mean acceptable to liberals."
Webster doesn't believe climate change is caused by humans.
It's unknown how strong the tea party movement is in Maine. Snowe, who is up for re-election in 2012, said she's not focusing on future elections when asked if the climate debate could make her vulnerable to conservative challengers.
"I'm not thinking about candidates," Snowe said in the Capitol yesterday. "I'm thinking about the issue."
"Everybody has their differing views," she said of the new party platform. "But you know, a lot of very conservative organizations recognize that climate change is a problem. It's problematic to our environment. Because they understand it's the degradation of the Earth and our natural resources."
'People will lose primaries'
To some observers, the conservative backlash has already made its mark on the Senate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime supporter of climate action, is "running hard right in absolute terror" to outpace a primary challenger, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently abandoned the climate bill that he drafted with Kerry and Lieberman, said Tom Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution.
"I don't think there's any market in the Republican Party for serious policymaking on climate change," he added.
One reason for that, said Grover Norquist, a Republican strategist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, is that incumbents who support "big government solutions" might find themselves threatened from the right.
"Massive government programs to react to that [climate change] are not going to be popular," he said. "People will lose primaries if they get into it."
That's not to say that Democrats are immune from political concussions, either. They face large losses in midterm elections this fall, analysts believe, perhaps enough to give Republicans control in the House.
What's unclear now, is whether the "hard-edged conservatism" being seen in some areas could blunt that effect by helping far-right candidates win primaries, only to see them lose in general elections, Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report wrote in an analysis last week.
Maine's new Republican platform has raised similar concerns. It could hinder efforts by moderate Republicans seeking office in the state's urban south, which is less conservative than the forested north, some observers say.
Even worse, it could drive existing Republicans out of the fold.
"Both will find the actions of the Republican Party convention entirely unacceptable," Mann of the Brookings Institute said of Snowe and Collins. "In Snowe's case, it could lead her to switch parties."