The Senate's surge into Republican hands yesterday ends an eight-year hold on power in which Democrats made failing attempts to slash carbon emissions amid sharp swings in the public's mood on climate change and growing damage from natural disasters.
Seats in key states like Colorado and Iowa turned to GOP candidates who at times campaigned against the expansion of environmental protections under President Obama. The conservative wave dismantles a Democratic shield that until now had protected U.S. EPA's efforts to complete its climate rules from Republican attacks as the Obama era ticks toward its end in 2016.
Now it's likely that President Obama's final years in office will be spent in part defending his plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions at power plants by one-third while addressing Republican priorities on conventional energy, like construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, in a legislature united under the GOP banner.
Republicans secured easy pickups in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, all energy-rich states where Obama's dimming popularity coincided with Democratic departures. Those victories alone gave Republicans half of the seats they needed to take control of the Senate. Democrats also lost Arkansas and Iowa, an outcome that was projected by many analysts. To seal the transfer of power, Republicans achieved upsets in Colorado and North Carolina by ousting Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Kay Hagan.
Turnout and messaging problems
The Democrats' demotion raises questions about the effectiveness of emphasizing issues like climate change to drive "drop off" voters -- including young people, unmarried women, African-Americans and Hispanics -- to the polls in a year without a presidential election. Republican candidates Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa sailed to victory despite heavy spending by environmental groups that sought to portray Republican attitudes on climate science as ignorant and solicitous of fossil fuel allies.
Given the cacophony of messaging and influences that drive voters to choose one candidate over another, many observers say it's impossible to use this year's midterm to judge the effectiveness of ads that target candidates who are skeptical of climate science. In other words, this is just the beginning of the attack on "deniers."
"As more climate science deniers lose, future candidates that have the same extreme position will find it harder and harder to win general elections," said Daniel Weiss, a senior vice president with the League of Conservation Voters, which spent about $30 million on the elections.
That strategy doesn't always work.
In Iowa, where Ernst beat Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, a three-term congressman, in a race for the open seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D), environmental groups spent freely to attack Ernst for opposing EPA regulations and questioning climate science.
"I drive a hybrid car, and my family recycles everything," Ernst said in a debate with Braley. "So I don't know the science behind climate change; I can't say one way or another what is the direct impact from whether it is man-made or not."
Braley criticized her for being out of touch with Iowa's farmers and hunters, suggesting that Ernst doesn't accept that "this is a real problem" with the climate. But the infusion of outside environmental spending in the race also gave Ernst an opening to attack her opponent, who she said was supported by a "billionaire extreme environmentalist" -- Tom Steyer of NextGen Climate.
Groups affiliated with David and Charles Koch reportedly also spent at least $3 million on the Iowa race.
It's the Senate's first power shift since 2007, when Democrats took control amid opposition to the Iraq War under President George W. Bush. Similarly, the swing comes halfway through President Obama's second term, as his popularity is plunging amid challenges to his policies on the Middle East, the economy and climate change.
Collision of big spenders
The shakeup followed explosive spending by outside groups, including massive advertising outlays by energy and environmental interests. The libertarian Koch brothers reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars against Democrats through advocacy organizations like Americans for Prosperity. On the other side, environmental groups led by NextGen Climate, which aspired to spend $100 million, unleashed waves of advertising to attack Republican positions on climate change, energy and the environment.
Altogether, this could be the most expensive midterm race in history. The Center for Responsive Politics recently estimated that outside groups would spend about $900 million.
The environmental groups prioritized Senate races in Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and New Hampshire, only to lose a majority of them. The shakeup comes as the administration strives to complete its historic climate regulations before Obama leaves office in two years.
Democrats were hurt by factors like the president's unpopularity and the large number of conservative Democratic Senate seats in play, but the GOP victories come despite efforts by environmentalists to make climate skepticism a politically dangerous position.
It's unlikely that yesterday's Democratic losses will serve as a bad grade for those aggressive climate messages, according to strategists. Many environmentalists are looking toward 2016 with the belief that a politician who rejects climate science will fail to find traction among a national Republican audience.
"I don't see this as a defeat for groups that are concerned about the environment," said John Weaver, who advised former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman during the Republican presidential primaries in 2012.
Obama also campaigned aggressively to motivate casual voters who are especially passionate about climate change. This summer, he spoke about drought in California, wildfires in Washington state -- "A lot of that has to do with climate change," he said in Chicago -- and the "generational challenge" of warming. Global warming made regular appearances in his speeches aimed at drop-off voters.
The efforts by Obama and environmental organizations might have contributed to some successes at the polls, though causation is impossible to determine. Democrats won a close Senate contest in Michigan. The results in the Alaska race between Sen. Mark Begich (D) and Republican Dan Sullivan could take days to establish as ballots from remote areas are tallied. In both cases, environmental groups described the Republican candidates as climate skeptics.
In Michigan, Rep. Gary Peters (D) beat Terri Lynn Land (R) to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D); Peters spoke about his support for climate action on the campaign trail and didn't rule out the possibility for cap and trade in the future.
Gene Karpinski, president of the League for Conservation Voters, said last night that Peters will help "tackle the climate crisis." LCV spent $2 million on the race.
In the House, Democrat Rep. Pete Aguilar won a tight race in California's 31st District against Republican Paul Chabot, whom environmental groups described as a climate "denier." But Rep. Scott Peters (D) narrowly lost to Republican Carl DeMaio in his San Diego district; Peters highlighted his support for rules limiting carbon emissions at power plants during the race.
Overall, Republicans expanded their House majority to 241.
Youth vote stays home
Altogether, the alliance of environmental groups consisting of the Environmental Defense Action Fund, NextGen Climate, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, LCV and the Sierra Club said it had reached 16 million "drop-off" voters through canvassing, phone calls and mailers. The alliance spent $85 million total, according to the groups.
Some political pollsters think this election marks a new era of "denier" messaging, not the end. In part, that's because it's nearly impossible to know which message sank in with voters as they were blitzed with a storm of ads, fliers and talking points.
The attack ads fizzled in some states, where Obama's unpopularity and the hue of the electorate contributed to Republican gains. But don't expect an absence of "denier" accusations in 2016, said Neil Newhouse, a pollster who advised Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
The candidates and their allies know whom to target. The hard part is getting voters to respond. In the last midterm elections, in 2010, there were 45 million people under 30 who were eligible to cast a ballot. Fewer than 11 million actually pulled a lever.
That's a 24 percent turnout for a group that's among the most passionate about climate change, falling short of every other age group by at least 14 percentage points. More than twice as many voters over 65, who tend to be the least aligned with climate action, cast a ballot in 2010.
A similar number of young voters cast ballots this year, according to exit polls.
Not only is it unclear how effective this year's climate messaging was, but there's also debate about its sincerity. Newhouse, who advised Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, described the "denier" attacks as a strategic decision to derail Republican candidates, rather than to promote action on the environment.
"It's an effort to drive the candidate out of the mainstream," Newhouse said.
Veto power may protect EPA climate rule
A Republican Senate all but guarantees challenges to the president's climate agenda, and most prominently EPA's proposed rule for power plant carbon emissions, the Clean Power Plan. The Republican leadership in both chambers of Congress proposed bills to freeze the rule this summer, though none made it to the Senate floor.
Because of the nature of the rule, however, it's unlikely that Republicans will be able to drive through any real change while Obama is still in the White House, according to analysts.
"The House and Senate can vote against [the Clean Power Plan], but they're not going to get enough votes in the Senate to amend the Clean Air Act" without earning a veto from the president, said Bobby McKinstry, chairman of the Climate Change and Sustainability Initiative at law firm Ballard-Spahr.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who stands to be majority leader, has said previously that he would use the appropriations process to push back at EPA regulations. But any attempt to seriously undercut the Clean Air Act through budget riders would almost certainly be rejected by the president, setting the stage for a new round of budget showdowns.
Whether or not Republicans can act on the rule through the legislative process, the rise of Republicans to the Senate's most important committees means that the Clean Power Plan and the president's climate agenda are sure to receive sharpened scrutiny.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who stands to be the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is one of Congress' most outspoken climate skeptics. As head of the committee in charge of EPA oversight, he'll be in position to call agency officials to task and air conservatives' many grievances with environmental regulation.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another climate skeptic, is in line to take the helm of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Science and Space Subcommittee, which oversees both the National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who would likely become chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, acknowledges global warming but has been critical of federal efforts to rein in carbon emissions.
Reporters Elizabeth Harball and Benjamin Hulac contributed.
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