U.S. Rep. Gary Peters is locked in one of the nation's closest Senate races, and he's gambling that climate change will help him win it. But he's not rushing to support the landmark carbon standard being released today by the White House.
The Michigan Democrat has shed his party's once-muffled approach to the thorny issue of climate, fulfilling the view of environmental strategists who believe that candidates should confidently promote the science behind warming and attack those who reject it. That could earn him additional votes from a segment of voters that tends to be made up of younger people, Latinos and women, they say.
For Peters, the calculation seems even simpler.
"It's something that we need to talk about," he said in an interview.
Yet as Peters and a handful of other Democratic candidates reorient their party toward a bolder climate message, the Obama administration's proposal today to cut carbon emissions at power plants is energizing opponents in a way not seen since Democrats tried and failed to curb greenhouse gases four years ago. That legislative defeat prompted several years of hushed climate politics.
Peters doesn't hesitate to defend his past support of using the cap-and-trade approach in the 2009 bill, but he avoided taking a stand on today's regulatory approach before seeing the specifics.
"I'm going to reserve judgment until I actually have seen what the announcements will be, what the policy changes will be," he said Friday. "Certainly that's going to be part of the discussion obviously in the next few months, but I'd hate to speculate at this point."
The electoral reverberations produced by today's announcement won't be known until November, but President Obama's historic action on climate change could raise risks for Democrats in an already hazardous election year. On one hand, critics are already attacking Democrats for hiking energy prices and pursuing a religious-like environmental ideology.
On the other, climate advocates say they're poised to benefit in midterm races as mounting scientific evidence and the presence of extreme weather help the voting public give a higher priority to dealing with global warming.
"Climate denial will not last," predicted Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Action Fund. "And I don't think that anyone is going to be able to get elected into the future if they continue this line of messaging."
EPA rule an echo of cap and trade
Michigan and other big industrial states that Democrats rely upon might test that theory.
Peters, who entered the House in 2009, describes his Republican opponent, Terri Lynn Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, as a "denier" who questions the extent to which humans are causing temperatures to rise. That could make her vulnerable, he believes, in a state that hasn't supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
"She wants to debate the science over it," Peters said. "It just shows she is not willing to accept the overwhelming evidence and willing then to engage in a frank and honest debate as to what the best policy solutions are."
The candidates are vying for a seat craved by both parties. It was left up for grabs when Democratic Sen. Carl Levin announced he wouldn't seek another term, and it stands to play a key role in deciding which party controls the Senate. Michigan is among seven states with races that are too close to call, according to The Cook Political Report. Republicans would gain control of the chamber with six net wins.
Land's campaign has called Peters a radical liberal who exaggerates the impact of human activity on the climate, though she appears open to the idea that people might be having some effect. Land's campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but it appears as if she also sees an advantage in raising the climate theme.
Last week, Land criticized Peters for supporting cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, an attack that some analysts think could lay the groundwork for a stronger message against Obama's new carbon rules.
"If people really get upset about [Obama's] regulations, there would be a way to tie Peters to it by saying, 'Look, Peters supported something even more stringent [in 2009],'" said Richard Hall, a political science professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
Obama prepares for war
But he doubts that climate issues will shape the election's outcome, on either side. Land is more likely to continue criticizing the Affordable Care Act, like most Republicans, than to engage heavily in attacks about Obama's new carbon rule, which won't be finalized for at least two years, Hall said.
Peters' focus on climate is also unlikely to attract votes, Hall said. Hall believes that people who feel passionately about global warming already support Peters. "He's got that group already," he said.
Still, this time Obama isn't taking any chances. Some environmentalists criticized him in 2010 for not leading the debate over cap and trade as it paralyzed the Senate and withered without a vote. Last week, the president primed the public for today's announcement by warning of the dangers of climate change in separate events on children's asthma, hurricanes and national security.
"I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that's beyond fixing," Obama said in his radio address Saturday. "America will build the future. A future that's cleaner, more prosperous, and full of good jobs -- a future where we can look our kids in the eye and tell them we did our part to leave them a safer, more stable world."
He said the new rules would prevent up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the first year they take effect -- scheduled for late 2016.
Opponents, meanwhile, are also girding for battle. But unlike the last climate war, critics can't point to a specific vote by Democrats on cap and trade -- a potent detail that was unleashed in television ads in 2010 as Republicans swept to power in the House.
"It helped turn things around for Republicans. It was a defining vote," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Asked if Obama's new rules, established by U.S. EPA, could provide similar ammunition, he said, "We're going to be looking at them pretty closely once they come out."
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group funded in part by fossil fuel interests like Charles and David Koch, indicated that Obama's announcement could mark a new phase in the midterm fight. He said that Democrats, especially those in contested states like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina, shouldn't feel insulated by the absence of a floor debate on today's rule.
"The public is not supportive of this agenda. And they're now really wary of the ideological excesses of the environmental movement," Phillips said. "We're certainly going to hold them accountable."
Asked if AFP would spend millions to discredit the carbon rule, Phillips answered, "I think it'll be a substantial effort."
In one race, both candidates want to lead on climate
The group is already spending money in California to influence the race between Rep. Scott Peters, a San Diego Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Carl DeMaio. So far, AFP is targeting Obamacare, which Phillips said will remain the "key issue."
For his part, Peters believes today's announcement can help draw a distinction in the race. He supports climate action but claims that DeMaio is avoiding the subject.
"Look, I'm happy to support what we need to do to deal with things like sea-level rise, more intense wildfires, droughts, big weather and its impacts on the federal budgets. All those things are important," Peters said. "Maybe one of the reasons my opponent hasn't talked about this [climate issue] is because he's got the support of the Koch brothers. The one thing we know about oil billionaires is they don't like the issue of climate."
The race in San Diego is important in determining the size of the Republican majority in the House. Along with about 13 other House races, the contest in Southern California is considered too close to call, making it one of tightest battles in the country.
DeMaio isn't willing to surrender the climate issue to Peters. He describes himself as a "new-generation Republican" who promotes gay rights, talks about reaching "critical mass" in alternative energy and supports policies to reduce the carbon footprints of businesses and homeowners.
"Scott Peters is lying when he says Carl has not spoken out on climate change," said Dave McCulloch, a spokesman for the DeMaio campaign. "The fact remains that Carl DeMaio is one of the only Republicans emphasizing environmental issues and has a long history of environmental leadership."
McCulloch didn't respond to questions about whether DeMaio agrees with scientists that human activity is a key contributor to rising temperatures.
Peters feels strongly about that point -- that the power plants being targeted by Obama's new rule are contributing to rising temperatures. But his answer to another question seemed to reflect the unknown force behind the newly revitalized climate issue.
Will talking about climate change help you win re-election?
"We'll find out," he said.