Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) appears to be preparing for a likely White House run by embracing issues that are not traditional conservative priorities -- including man-made climate change.
The libertarian joined 14 other GOP senators last week in voting for an amendment by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) offered to the Keystone XL oil pipeline bill that declared that man-made emissions contribute to warming. But while many of the other Republicans who backed the language were either climate moderates or up for re-election in swing states in 2016 -- or both -- Paul is neither (E&E Daily, Jan. 28). He is defending his seat next year in deep-red Kentucky, where he can point to a solid history of anti-regulatory rhetoric and bids he led to kill U.S. EPA rules.
Paul declined requests to explain his vote on Hoeven's amendment, but political observers say he seems to be aiming beyond Kentucky.
"I think Paul has been doing a lot of very calculated things to make him seem like a kinder, friendlier libertarian," said David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship.
Climate change is not the only issue on which Paul has zigged while the bulk of his party has zagged. He is collaborating with Democrats on a handful of bills on topics ranging from criminal justice reform to voting rights -- prompting speculation that he is courting African-American voters ahead of 2016. And his support for President Obama's Cuba policy put him at odds with other conservative would-be 2016 contenders at a donors' meeting organized by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch last weekend.
"We tried isolationism for 50 years," he said, according to reports.
Jenkins said that Paul appears to be staking out unclaimed territory in a potential 2016 field that will have no dearth of fiscal conservatives like himself competing for dollars and votes.
"He's occupying the same space as Sen. Ted Cruz [R-Texas], and so there's got to be some differentiation," Jenkins said. "And I think he understands that people can be afraid that a libertarian can be too extreme."
By putting himself on record as believing human emissions have some effect on warming -- a view that falls short of the scientific consensus -- Paul aligns himself with what polls say most Americans believe. And he does so without tarnishing his anti-regulatory credentials, Jenkins said. Most climatologists say recent warming is primarily the result of human emissions.
"Saying something's a problem makes no statement whatsoever on what sort of solution you would offer to deal with the problem. So as long as it's in that frame, it seems like it's a very safe thing for Paul to do to come across as reasonable," Jenkins said. "And he can cite that."
The strategy, if it is one, could also come straight out of the Republican National Committee's 100-page postmortem assessment of the 2012 presidential election. Former Massachusetts Gov. and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost to Obama in part because Republicans failed to make inroads with emerging demographic groups, the report stated -- a view that reignited GOP interest in immigration reform.
Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund Director Heather Taylor-Miesle said that some Republicans now eyeing a 2016 bid appear eager to learn from the past. The fact that Paul, Romney and others are now taking a less dismissive stance on climate science may be a case in point.
"I do think that there's a political calculation that some of them likely made here, that the White House will be very hard won, period, for someone who is too conservative, but it'll especially be very hard to attract those rising electorate voters -- Latinos, women and young people -- who we all know care about this issue in greater numbers," she said.
Polling shows that Latinos and young voters, especially, are more likely to rank climate change as a high priority than the U.S. population in general (E&ENews PM, Jan. 23). And that statistic includes young Republicans.
But "big tent" issues like climate change, immigration and criminal justice reform don't seem to excite primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Alex Patton, owner of the Florida-based Ozean Media and a Republican pollster, noted that voters under 30 and minorities are more likely to participate in the Democratic primaries in those early states, but young voters usually don't show up in force even to those.
"Climate change is not going to be a central issue," Patton said.
It is more likely, he said, that a crisis will develop in the U.S. petroleum sector over the coming year -- as low oil prices starve U.S. producers and the industries they support -- and that GOP voters will demand their candidates address that in the primary.
Patton said he credited Paul with voting his mind last week on the climate amendment, though he acknowledged it could be a good general election move.
"[Former Republican Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush said the person who can win the general election has to be willing to lose the primary," Patton said. "It will take that kind of leader to do that."
Political analyst and Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said Republicans would stand firm on policy while trying not to let Democrats nail them down on climate science.
"What Republicans all agree on is that they don't want to see so many job-killing regulations and taxes, and they want to maintain flexibility so that they can come to a consensus [on science] behind the scenes without handcuffing the 2016 nominee," he said.
Last week's near-consensus vote by the Senate that "climate change is real and not a hoax" helped do that, he said, as did votes, like Paul's, that left man-made warming on the table.
"They wanted to leave as much room as possible for the eventual nominee to navigate the issue, because it's going to be the eventual nominee who is going to most likely deal with this against [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton," he said.
One thing that remains unclear is whether candidates who express less science skepticism will pay the price with donors like the Kochs -- powerful skeptics who owe their wealth to fossil fuels.
Paul came last in a straw poll of would-be donors at the Koch gathering Sunday, trailing Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who won, and Ted Cruz -- both of whom voted against the Hoeven amendment.
But while some would-be contenders are maintaining a hard line on climate science, others are not.
Romney, who has signaled that he's mulling his third run for president, volunteered more than once during a recent trip to the Southwest that he is "one of those Republicans" who believe human emissions are contributing to warming (Greenwire, Jan. 22).
Romney's recent remarks contrast with statements four years ago that "we don't know what's causing climate change."
"Most of the things he does are fairly politically calculated," Jenkins said. "So he must be thinking that the risk is greater from the general election side for being positioned as sort of a denier on climate than getting backlash for the far extreme segments of the party, even though they're the ones who turn out quite frequently in primaries."
This may be in part because the last two election cycles showed that the power of the far-right tea party wing is waning, he said.
But Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster for the Polling Company Inc., said the temptation for candidates who have lost elections in the past is to blame a position or a strategy for their defeat.
"It's easier to modify your position on issues modestly than to sort of look in the mirror and say maybe some of this cannot be overcome," she said.
Conway said she expects that 2016 GOP candidates will shy away from absolute statements on climate change because "they may incur the wrath of people who otherwise may support you." A more balanced statement acknowledging some role for human emissions would be more palatable to most Americans, she said.
Rubio, for his part, faced considerable pushback last year when he said climate change isn't contributing to warming -- even as sea-level rise is already threatening infrastructure in parts of his own state.
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