What John Curtis’ win means for Republican climate action

By Kelsey Brugger, Emma Dumain | 06/27/2024 06:19 AM EDT

The Utah Republican is all but assured a Senate seat come November. Will his climate message carry through?

Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah.)

Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) speaks with reporters in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday. Rick Bowmer/AP

Republican Rep. John Curtis said he never planned to make his primary campaign for a Utah Senate seat a “referendum” on his climate work.

Yet for the lawmaker whose political identity in Washington is tied tightly to his efforts to move his party away from climate science denialism, his Tuesday night win sent a strong message.

“Does it verify or affirm that you can have a more thoughtful or nuanced position on climate issues and energy issues and still get elected statewide in a conservative state? Yes,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last Congress, said of Curtis on Wednesday. “John Curtis certainly has proved that.”


Curtis’ big win — after outpacing his Donald Trump-backed competitor by nearly 20 percentage points — will almost certainly catapult him into the Senate. Utah is a reliably red state, but it also has a history of electing moderate Republicans, including outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Spencer Cox, who won his own GOP primary despite his open criticism of Trump.

In conversations with lawmakers and advocates Wednesday, many say that Curtis’ brand of climate advocacy has been a winning one that will serve him well in the Senate.

He has attracted a following on Capitol Hill: dozens of Republicans who say they accept the reality of climate change have joined the Conservative Climate Caucus, which he founded. And despite his low lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters, Curtis has been able to work with Democrats on a handful of environment and energy issues.

What remains to be seen is how much Curtis, 64, will focus on climate in the general election and what kind of future he’ll have on the issue in the Senate.

That future could include a climate-related bill Curtis has been working to introduce in the face of increasing conservative attacks. The “Providing Reliable, Objective, Verifiable Emissions Intensity and Transparency (PROVE IT) Act,” which calls for studying the carbon intensity of U.S. products, prompted digital ads that accused Curtis of seeking to drive up energy costs.

But that bill is the kind of bipartisan work that prompted some green advocates to support him in the primary. They now say they’re ready to work with him in the Senate.

“We have to reset the table for more fulsome bipartisan cooperation on climate in a post-Trump world,” said David Kieve, president at EDF Action, which ran a $100,000 radio campaign for Curtis. “We’re going to be looking for Curtis’ leadership.”

Curtis’ office did not make him available for an interview Wednesday.

Curtis has ‘just done magic’

Lawmakers on Wednesday said Curtis’ founding of the Conservative Climate Caucus was a watershed moment. He launched the group in 2021 to educate Republicans about climate science and promote a conservative climate platform — one mainly centered on the argument that global warming can be addressed by reducing emissions, not by eliminating the fossil fuels that cause them.

“His starting of the Conservative Climate Caucus to educate Republicans has just done magic,” said Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.), co-chair of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus. “It really has done leaps and bounds.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), chair of the GOP-dominated Congressional Western Caucus, said that Curtis “provide[d] a platform for Republicans to talk about this in a way that we haven’t before.”

“He’s helped us be able to talk confidently about being responsible with our resources, with our planet,” said Newhouse, who is also a member of the Conservative Climate Caucus. “It’s a great message.”

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.).
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.). | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Luke Bolar, who runs the conservative ClearPath Action Fund and supported the Curtis campaign, described Curtis’ leadership as successful in “getting Republicans engaged” on climate issues and sending Republican delegations to the annual U.N. climate summits abroad for the very first time, where they shared “conservative ideas.”

But there have been limits to the group’s influence beyond that. The only time Curtis publicly used his muscle to actually shape legislative outcomes was in 2023, when he leveraged his relationships through his caucus to tank several amendments on the House floor to an Energy-Water spending bill that would have gutted federal energy efficiency programs.

He has also been slow to introduce legislation he has been working on with Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) for nearly a year now: A companion bill to the Senate’s S. 1863, the “PROVE IT Act,” which would mandate a Department of Energy study of the emissions intensity of nearly two dozen industrial goods.

The goal, Curtis and other backers say, is to show how well U.S. exports compare to other countries as the European Union implements carbon import fees.

The bipartisan proposal has become a political lightning rod, with detractors insisting it will inevitably lead to a carbon tax or result in trade wars. At this point, it’s not clear how many Republicans will be cosponsors of the House bill if and when Curtis and Peters unveil it.

It’s also unclear how much support it will have from within the Conservative Climate Caucus itself. The group is now in the hands of Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), who is not expected to support it.

But she did tell POLITICO’s E&E News on Wednesday she has requested a sit-down with House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) on behalf of the caucus. It would be the first such meeting between the two parties since Johnson took the gavel last fall.

No Romney

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Curtis said he’s “really different” from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). | Alex Brandon/AP

In the Senate, Curtis would replace a Republican who stood out in his party for talking about climate change but not taking much action.

“Mitt Romney occasionally talked about this,” said Bolar, “but I don’t know he did a lot in terms of actually legislating.”

Indeed, in a post-victory interview with Utah public radio station KUER-FM, Curtis said he would chart his own path.

“If you expect me to be Mitt Romney, I’m going to disappoint you,” he said. “If you expect me to be Mike Lee” — the senior Republican senator from Utah — “I’m going to disappoint you. I’m John Curtis, and I think it’s just fair to say I’m really different from both of them.”

In contrast to Romney on climate issues in particular, Bolar said, Curtis has been more outspoken in his support for climate solutions like geothermal energy and carbon capture projects. He could also team up with the Senate sponsors of the “PROVE IT Act” — Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

“I think Congressman Curtis would be a great [senator],” Coons told E&E News last week. “I’ve gotten to meet with him several times over several years. He strikes me as very conservative, but reasonable and thoughtful and insightful.”

Coons is the current Democratic chair of the Senate Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus; the Republican co-chair, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), is leaving at the end of the term.

Less certain is what sort of relationship Curtis will have with Lee, who is expected to be the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year and has shown little interest in softening the Republican messaging on climate issues.

In social media posts leading up to the election, Lee argued that any Republican with a climate agenda “shouldn’t be in office.” When asked recently whether he thought Curtis’ climate work would be a liability in the primary, Lee declined to comment.

Nick Loris, vice president of public policy at the conservative climate policy shop, C3 Solutions, thought Lee and Curtis might agree on certain policy positions like amending the National Environmental Policy Act to speed up environmental reviews.

The two lawmakers also both oppose efforts by the federal government to curtail access to public lands by establishing new national monuments.

“While the rhetoric is very different from Sen. Lee to a potential Sen. Curtis,” Loris said, “I do think the policy overlap is the most important part.”

‘Taking us backwards’

Curtis has alienated Republicans who don’t think the party should engage on the issue, seeing the subject of climate as synonymous with Democratic efforts to end fossil fuels and pursue a “radical,” “rush-to-green” agenda. His candidacy has also split environmental advocates.

While some Democrats are complimentary of Curtis’ efforts to engage on climate issues, the League of Conservation Voters has scoffed at the notion he’s a “climate champion,” pointing to his 6 percent lifetime scorecard rating.

And though EDF Action rewarded the lawmaker’s overtures during the primary, Kieve said it was too soon to say whether the group will contribute to his general election campaign.

Curtis will now face off against the Democrat Caroline Gleich, a 38-year-old professional skier whose climate activism could provide a contrast on how the parties engage on environmental policy.

“When Curtis was first elected, I was hopeful,” Gleich said in an interview with E&E News on Wednesday, referring to his rhetoric on climate action.

“But Curtis has been more than a letdown. He’s taken so much money from the fossil fuel industry and the power industry. He’s really shown to be … contributing to the problem.”

Caroline Gleich.
Caroline Gleich prior to testifying at a House climate hearing in 2019. She’ll face Curtis in the November general election. | Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Gleich maligned Curtis’ record Wednesday, stressing Utah’s poor air quality and pointing out her opponent’s past votes against federal protections for air, water and public lands.

“He’s taking us backwards,” she said.

Curtis’ supporters, though, credit him for being one of the few Republicans able to lead on an increasingly partisan and contentious issue on Capitol Hill. Loris of C3 Solutions said it boils down to Curtis’ tenor and grace.

“He’s willing to engage in conversations with a lot of earnestness and humility,” Loris said. “He might not be trying to make everyone into a climate hawk but find areas where conservatives are on board with more commonsense solutions.”

On substance, the general election campaign between Curtis and Gleich will present an opportunity for the two candidates to more fully articulate their positions on climate.

While Curtis said during the primary his message to voters was more about the economy and immigration than the environment, Gleich has said the environment is among her top issues in her bid for office.

Graves said he was betting his Republican colleague would prevail: “I will tell you, going into any venue, liberal or conservative — I would rather be armed with John Curtis’ position on climate issues than someone on the far left.”