U.S. EPA’s final Clean Power Plan rule is set for release today, but the flow of millions of advertising dollars aimed at elevating the measure’s importance in a series of competitive Senate races began months ago and is expected to steadily grow ahead of next year’s Election Day.
Political observers with ties to both the environmental movement and the energy industry are reticent to openly predict how important the final rule, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants with state-specific goals, will ultimately prove in the 2016 cycle. But both sides agree that the regulation could become a key issue in more than a half-dozen races in the battle for majority control of the Senate.
Generally, Republicans are already labeling the measure a sign of federal overreach and are warning of its dire consequences to the economic and the reliability of the electric grid. Most Democrats — with the exception of some representing fossil fuel-heavy states and districts — will tout its benefits to the climate.
These arguments are likely to be on display in open-seat races in Indiana, Nevada and Florida, as well as in elections for seats held by Republican incumbents in Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Incumbents in several of those races have already drawn attention from environmental groups pumping funds into so-called issue ads — television or digital spots that criticize lawmakers’ votes but don’t explicitly encourage votes for a candidate — including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R), Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R), Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (R), Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R). Environmentalists also took aim at Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), who is seeking the Democratic nod to take on Arizona Sen. John McCain (R).
But Democrats are also likely to be targeted over the measures by Republicans or third-party groups that argue the new rules could hurt coal-producing states and raise energy costs for consumers.
Among the likely targets are former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who is vying for the Democratic nomination to challenge Portman and previously headed the Center for American Progress Action Fund, as well as former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D), who is attempting a comeback bid against Johnson.
The latter race could prompt callbacks to the 2010 midterm election and the failed "American Clean Energy and Security Act," commonly referred to as the cap-and-trade bill, the last time a major environmental measure became a key talking point in an election cycle. Democrats lost a record-shattering 63 House seats that year.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek pointed to Feingold’s opposition to the House bill in that cycle, when he argued it would be too harmful to his home state because of its reliance on the coal industry.
"We have a lot of Senate races in Midwestern states that will be disproportionately impacted by these regulations," Bozek said.
But Ryan Cunningham, who serves as senior vice president for energy and climate at public relations firm Fenton, warned against using the 2010 measure to predict how the Clean Power Plan will be received.
"It would be foolish to doubt that there will be efforts to use the Clean Power Plan against some folks," Cunningham said. "But there are structural differences in the law, political differences in the electoral cycle and economic differences … that make this quite a different situation."
In particular, Cunningham highlighted reductions in the cost of renewable energy and the growth of energy efficiency programs, as well as the state-specific nature of the Clean Power Plan, as opposed to the nationwide program offered under the cap-and-trade bill.
"The flexibility is absolutely crucial," Cunningham said.
Unlike the 2010 measure, the Clean Power Plan is also not a legislative action. Although senators and House lawmakers may vote on measures aimed at decreasing or blocking funding for its enforcement — or killing it outright — the rule was not generated by Congress.
But Cunningham also argued that despite the prevalence of cap and trade as a talking point in the 2010 midterm cycle, Democratic support for the measure did not ultimately determine whether a member of Congress lost his or her re-election bid — or cost Democrats control of the House.
"The general consensus was that the guys that voted for cap and trade, the bulk of them got booted out," Cunningham said, pointing to members like then-Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), who is now competing for the open Hoosier State Senate seat along with a host of Republican primary candidates, including Rep. Todd Young (R), who knocked Hill out of office in 2010. "There was no traceable pattern, in actuality, between people who voted for [cap and trade] and people who got booted out."
NRDC Action Fund Director Heather Taylor-Miesle declined to cite specific races where the group is likely to target opponents of the Clean Power Plan, but she similarly argued that the regulation is unlikely to elicit a repeat of public reaction to the cap-and-trade bill.
"In this case, it’s actually a really great thing. Clean energy has become something that has grown dramatically since the last time this was really a discussion before the public," Taylor-Miesle said. "Anywhere where we’re going to go, we’re going to highlight it."
League of Conservation Voters Senior Vice President for Campaigns Daniel Weiss asserted that Senate candidates may also look to polling data on support for renewable energy to take a position on the regulation.
"Multiple polls demonstrate strong public backing for carbon pollution reductions from power plants. U.S. Senate candidates who support the Clean Power Plan can attract support from these people," Weiss told E&E Daily. "Candidates that oppose the plan will seem more concerned about polluters’ profits than public health. This could cost them valuable votes from youth, Latinos and women voters."
But voters could get a preview of the arguments over the Clean Power Plan in coming months, as candidates in two open-seat gubernatorial contests that will be settled this fall spar over the regulation.
Both Kentucky businessman Matt Bevin (R) and state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) have sought ahead of today’s announcement to frame themselves as opponents of the new rule, as has Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R), a leading candidate for his state’s governorship who has been one of EPA’s most vocal critics on Capitol Hill.