Vulnerable House Republicans flock to climate caucus

By Timothy Cama | 05/03/2024 06:24 AM EDT

The Conservative Climate Caucus sports numerous at-risk members. Democrats and green groups accuse it of providing political cover.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa).

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), the Conservative Climate Caucus' new chair, talks at a panel of the COP27 U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 11, 2022. Thomas Hartwell/AP

Some of the most at-risk House Republicans in this year’s elections have joined the Conservative Climate Caucus, a group that acknowledges man-made climate change but also sees fossil fuels as a “major part” of reducing emissions.

The 82-member strong group boasts 12 lawmakers whose districts voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 race.

Moreover, seven of the nine Republicans races rated as “toss-up” — as ranked by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball of the University of Virginia — are in the caucus. Three out of the four Republicans running in races where Democrats are favored are members of the group.


As Republicans continue grappling with how to address climate change from a conservative perspective, many in the caucus acknowledge its political benefits but say their interest in climate is sincere.

One vulnerable lawmaker, freshman Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.), a vice chair of the caucus, said her focus is on fighting for clean energy in her Hampton Roads district. That district hosts one of the nation’s rare offshore wind farms — an endeavor she supports.

“I think it’s important, especially for Republicans, to have a voice in that space, and we frequently don’t,” Kiggans, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview. “So any opportunity we have to highlight that issue, I’ll take it.”

Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.
Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.). | Alex Brandon/AP

And Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.), a trained nuclear engineer, said he’s pushing for nuclear energy as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while making energy more affordable and secure.

He’s a lead sponsor of the “DOE and NASA Interagency Research Coordination Act,” H.R. 2988, which passed the House last year and aims to boost collaboration between the agencies.

Members of the caucus are planning Friday to tour Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, which recently completed building two new nuclear reactors, the nation’s first in decades, to highlight their support for nuclear.

But ever since it was founded in 2021 by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), Democrats and green groups alike have accused the caucus of acting as political cover to convince skeptical swing voters, while barely straying from GOP orthodoxy on climate and energy.

They point to the Republicans’ lifetime voting records on climate and especially to votes against bills green groups hold dear, like the Inflation Reduction Act.

“It’s great for these members to say that they care about climate. But their records very clearly show that they’re not voting for the things that we know, that science tells us, would actually solve the climate crisis,” said Craig Auster, vice president of political affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, which hasn’t endorsed a Republican in four years.

GOP politics and climate

Many caucus members, in recent interviews, pushed back on that criticism. Indeed, they have notched some wins in legislative fights.

Last year, Curtis and the caucus helped beat back spending bill amendments that would have gutted energy efficiency and infrastructure programs. And several members of the group sided with the Biden administration’s pause on new solar tariffs for China.

Vulnerable members of the caucus said they have legitimate reasons for joining, like an honest commitment to the climate or, like Kiggans, a desire to get a seat at the table in policy discussions.

“I don’t have this position because I think it’s politically beneficial. I share this position because it’s necessary,” said Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.). “It’s very much in my blood. It’s in the blood of the people I represent.”

Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.).
Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.). | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Williams, the New York Republican, says that it’s more what he brings to the caucus, not what the caucus might provide him politically.

“It’s not about getting credentials from a caucus,” he said. “It’s about the credentials that I bring from my professional experience and as a former nuclear submarine officer.”

But some do acknowledge there are electoral pluses as well.

“I do think it’s something that some of these individuals can utilize as a benefit to them in reelection,” said caucus chair Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), who was tapped to lead the caucus last month as Curtis focused on a Senate run. “But I’m not sure that’s why they were particularly within the Conservative Climate Caucus to begin with.”

Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.) sees political benefits in his membership in the caucus but said that’s not what’s driving it.

“Good government is good politics,” LaLota said.

“It’s good policy to want to preserve the environment. It’s good policy to want to find alternate energy sources which can make energy cheaper, which can decrease our reliance upon foreign nations, many of whom are hostile to us. That’s all good government,” he continued.

“If good politics flow from that, well, God bless. That’s the cherry on the sundae.”

‘A low bar’

But Auster, the LCV political affairs VP, said that on average, members of the Conservative Climate Caucus scored 5 percent on the 2023 edition of the National Voter Scorecard, the group’s yardstick for measuring lawmakers’ environmental voting records. That’s slightly above the House GOP’s overall average of 4 percent.

Indeed, a scan of the roster makes it clear why. There are dozens of enthusiastic fossil fuel supporters as members: Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Science, Space and Technology Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.).

Another member, Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) has been pushing to repeal the methane fee contained in the IRA. On its website, the caucus vows to “fight against radical progressive climate proposals.”

“It’s a way for these members to try to get cover for some really extreme votes for the oil and gas industry and not for the health and safety of their constituents,” Auster said, pointing to votes like the “Lower Energy Costs Act,” H.R. 1, which got support from all but one House Republican, and the numerous House votes to roll back provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I think voters are smart enough to look and see what people have actually done, and not just accept something like this,” said Auster.

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.).
Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) in March. He considers Curtis a friend but is highly skeptical of the caucus. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), one of the House’s leading clean energy advocates, said there can be value to a Republican climate caucus, and he counts Curtis, the group’s founder and chair emeritus, as a friend.

But he said the caucus shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a way to actually fight climate change, and argued that the group isn’t often communicating with real experts in the field.

“If you are doing something that is very brave by the standards of the Republican Party, that’s such a low bar,” he said. “If you’re someone who’s really at the cutting edge of what’s going on in the climate and how to address what’s going on in the climate, it’s just not a place to waste your time.”

Curtis, who is now running for Senate, launched the caucus in 2021, in an effort to get Republicans more involved in climate change policy and push ideas that the party could get behind, such as replacing coal with natural gas and incentivizing nuclear energy.

Miller-Meeks could try to nudge the caucus toward a more active role, saying she is mulling whether the caucus should take stands on legislation or otherwise carry out more explicit advocacy.

‘Not a big fan of caucuses’

Not all vulnerable House Republicans are in the climate caucus. Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) said he has a record to show he cares about the environment — such as fighting against the Chiquita Canyon Landfill and to reduce wildfires — and doesn’t need the caucus membership.

“I’m not a big fan of caucuses, because it allows members to say ‘Hey, I’m on this caucus, that means I care.’ Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re capable, it doesn’t mean you’re actually doing your job on these issues as a member of this caucus,” he said.

“But sure, if you’re a member of that caucus, it may inoculate you against some of the assertions that you are not pro-environment.”

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) helped launch and lead the Climate Solutions Caucus, which had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, from 2016 until he left the House in 2019.

He faced accusations at the time that Republicans were using that group to greenwash their records, and he took issue with it — as he does with criticisms of the Conservative Climate Caucus.

“I do not remember encountering a single member who used it in their campaigns or tried to exploit it for personal political gain. I don’t think that being a member of a caucus is decisive for any voter,” he said. “I do think that members who engage do so sincerely and sometimes out of curiosity.”

Carlos Curbelo and Paul Ryan.
Then-Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) with then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in 2017. | Scott Applewhite/AP

Curbelo sees the high correlation between vulnerable members and climate caucus participation, but argued that it’s a sign of who gets elected in politically close districts.

“There’s a self-selection process,” he said. “If you’re someone who can get elected in a swing district, your views are probably closer to the center of the political spectrum, and your voting record probably is as well.”

Curbelo lost reelection 2018, a wave election year for House Democrats, which wiped out a significant portion of the Climate Solutions Caucus’ Republican membership. Reps. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) relaunched it last year.

Given the number of at-risk members, that could happen again with the Conservative Climate Caucus in this year’s races.

“When you’re in the house, every two years, you’re up for reelection. So regardless of who that individual would be, that would always be a risk,” said Miller-Meeks.

But the group has a succession plan. “It’s why we have vice chairs now, so that there are other individuals that will be able to take up the slack,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the number of Republicans that voted for H.R. 1. Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick voted against the legislation.