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By Dean Scott
Oct. 3 — Whether Senate Republicans continue to push back against climate and environmental regulation or Democrats go on the offensive, those policies could hinge on the electoral fate of just five Republican incumbent senators this November.
The fate of those vulnerable Republicans—Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)—will likely decide whether Democrats either control the Senate and take committee gavels in 2017 or continue to play defense under the next president.
Democrats will almost surely pick up at least a couple of seats, with Kirk and Johnson trailing Democratic challengers significantly and Ayotte and Toomey slight underdogs. But other deciding races have tightened, and Republicans are even running well ahead in some states that were supposed to be competitive, including Florida and Arizona, where incumbent Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are leading.
The bottom line? With the election five weeks away, Democrats have the edge to net four-seats, the bare minimum they will need to end Republicans’ 54–46 majority; a Hillary Clinton win Nov. 8 would mean her vice president would break a tie. (Democrats need to net five seats if Republican nominee Donald Trump wins.) But it is becoming clear that Democrats at best will hold only a razor-thin Democratic majority, which is damping hopes that their party can go on the offensive on climate and environmental policy—particularly if the House, as expected, remains under Republican control.
Those who are closely monitoring key Senate races say it’s hard to see how Democrats can win more than 51 or 52 seats, which would fall well short of the 60 votes they would need to move a sweeping climate bill. Jennifer Duffy, senior editor who tracks Senate races at the Cook Political Report, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 3 she is still predicting a slight Democratic majority in 2017.
But even with a 52-48 majority, Democrats would need eight Republicans to get the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster threat, she said, suggesting the only path forward on climate change is through smaller bills not a comprehensive one. “Realistically how is this change going to happen? The only path I see is incremental,” she said.
For incumbent Republicans running tight races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and New Hampshire, few are highlighting environmental issues or climate change, noting that voters in national elections are once again focused on broader economic issues and security concerns including combating terrorism.
Portman and Ayotte are the exception, with Portman pointing to his leadership on Senate energy bills aimed at boosting efficiency and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and Ayotte highlighting pro-environment votes on climate and other environmental issues.
For Ayotte, a focus on her relatively green record could appeal to New Hampshire moderates and undecided voters who often lean Democratic in presidential years. Her increasingly green voting record could help her distance herself from other Republicans on Capitol Hill who have voted again and again to roll back Obama climate and environmental rules.
“From the time I was attorney general, I felt very strongly that we need to take action to protect New Hampshire’s environment,” Ayotte, who became the state’s first female attorney general in 2004, told Bloomberg BNA.
“The beautiful environment of our state is very important to who we are, our way of life and also our economy,” she said. “We have a long bipartisan tradition of standing up to protect the environment. That’s what I try to do in the Senate.”
Ayotte also has taken a stance on global warming that is at odds with her more skeptical Republican colleagues.
“Kelly believes that climate change is real, humans significantly contribute to it and it needs to be addressed,” her campaign website says. A year ago, she and three other senators, including Kirk from Illinois, launched a Senate Energy and Environment Working Group to bring together Republicans to look for common ground on climate, clean energy and environmental protection.
Democrats in the Senate will have to see more Republicans joining such efforts if they are to move sweeping climate legislation, which will likely need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster threat.
Democrats who have been itching to put climate issues back on the front-burner in the Senate for years will likely welcome back two former colleagues who voted for sweeping climate legislation the last time it was debated on the floor in 2008: Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. The Senate cap-and-trade measure fell 12 votes shy of the 60 on a procedural vote; climate legislation has languished in the Senate since.
A Democratic win in Pennsylvania by Kate McGinty, who chaired President Bill Clinton’s White House Council on Environmental Quality, would add another reliable vote for climate and environmental legislation. McGinty is in a tight race to unseat incumbent Toomey.
At this point in the campaign, Democrats appear to be on the way to netting at least a three-seat gain, given Bayh’s lead in Indiana; Feingold’s lead in Wisconsin; and in Illinois, where Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) is heavily favored over incumbent Kirk all year and continues to hold a 5 percent to 8 percent edge in the polls.
But Democrats are running neck-and-neck with Republicans in Pennsylvania, Nevada and in Ayotte’s battleground of New Hampshire, where polls show her slightly trailing her Democratic challenger, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.
It is unclear whether defeating Ayotte gets Democrats one vote closer to moving climate legislation in the Senate because they could often count on her to side with them on many high-profile environmental votes on the floor.
Ayotte was the first Senate Republican to publicly back the Environmental Protection Agency’s final carbon pollution limits, which anchors President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. She also sided with Democrats in beating back Republican-led attacks on EPA mercury and air toxic standards and its cross-state air pollution rule to cut pollutants drifting from state to state.
That hasn’t been enough to draw many endorsements from environmental groups such as NextGen Climate; it endorsed her opponent Hassan Sept. 25. And there are indications Ayotte tended to vote more green the closer she got to her 2016 re-election.
The New Hampshire Republican has cast pro-environment votes only 35 percent of the time during her Senate tenure, well below the Senate average of 45 percent, according to her lifetime ranking by the League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard.
But for 2015 votes, Ayotte raised her score to 56 percent. That ranked her as better on environmental votes than even two Democrats: Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), according to the League of Conservation Voters Manchin and Heitkamp both cast pro-environment votes 40 percent of the time last year.
The Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid, has repeatedly blamed Republicans for congressional inaction on climate change and accused the party of now working in lockstep with Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has labeled climate change a hoax.
“Republicans here in the Senate adhere to the Trump policies of denying everything” related to the climate issue, according to Reid, who is retiring this year. “They haven’t even tried, and that’s what … they’re going to be remembered for,” Reid said.
Reid’s critics are quick to note that it was a Democratic majority under his leadership that couldn’t muster the support to bring a climate bill to the floor in 2010, a year after it had passed the House. His retirement offers Republicans one of the few opportunities to pick off a seat from Democrats; Republican challenger Joe Heck is now running slightly ahead in Nevada of Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) counters that Democrats have launched an “assault” against his state’s “hard-working coal miners and their families” and that Republican control of Congress has been a bulwark against overzealous Obama administration regulation.
While the Republican House and Senate haven’t been able to roll back most of those rules, McConnell said, “hopefully next year we’ll have a new Republican president” in Donald Trump, “who will sign those measures into law and undo some of the damage done” under Obama.
Democrats have a built-in advantage in several battleground states such as Wisconsin and Illinois; Obama won both handily in 2008 and 2012. They hope Clinton can provide coat tails that can boost Democratic Senate candidates there as well as in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, which Obama also won twice.
On the campaign trail, Obama has argued that a Clinton successor is crucial to ensuring his climate agenda isn’t rolled back by Trump, who has dubbed global warming a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” to hurt U.S. manufacturing.
“This is not somebody’s imagination,” Obama said of climate change at a Sept. 13 Philadelphia campaign event for Hillary Clinton. “This is not some liberal plot. It’s a problem,” he said. “But we’ve got to vote for people who actually understand that it’s real.”
For their part, many of the endangered Republicans are skeptical of Democratic efforts to motivate voters to the polls over the environment and climate change.
In Wisconsin, first-term incumbent Johnson, who is viewed as one of the more vulnerable Republicans in his rematch with Feingold—said he would welcome a debate on the cost of Obama’s environmental and regulatory agenda.
“It’s a big issue—from the standpoint of economic growth and the regulatory overreach of this administration,” Johnson told Bloomberg BNA.
The incumbent has trailed in his rematch with Feingold by as much as 10 percent in recent months.
Next door to Wisconsin in Illinois, Duckworth is heavily favored over Republican incumbent Kirk, who has held a consistent 5 percent to 8 percent edge in polls in recent months. Kirk, one of the few Republicans to vote for the Democratic-led cap-and-trade bill as a House member in 2009, said the environment just doesn’t register with Illinois voters this campaign.
“It’s really not a big issue for people; terrorism and insecurity abroad are the main issues I hear,” Kirk told Bloomberg BNA. “I know you don’t want to write that. But those are the key” concerns, he said.
Then there’s Bayh, who announced in July that he was throwing his hat in the ring for the Indiana seat —Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) is retiring—catapulted Bayh into the lead. But victories by Feingold, Duckworth and Bayh would still leave them at least one seat shy of Senate control if Clinton wins on election day or two seats short if Trump defeats her.
Democrats also will need some wins in closer contests where incumbent Republicans are still battling, perhaps by toppling New Hampshire’s Ayotte and Pennsylvania Republican Toomey.
Toomey isn’t necessarily skeptical of the importance of the environment as an election issue; he just rejects the idea that backing traditional fossil fuel energy sources makes a senator less green. Toomey touts Pennsylvania’s leading role in the U.S. natural gas boom, which he notes is less carbon-intensive than oil or coal.
“I think everybody cares about the environment,” the incumbent told Bloomberg BNA. “But people care about energy too. In Pennsylvania of course we’re leading the nation now in really wonderful development of natural gas, the cleanest of all fossil fuels,” he said.
McGinty, his challenger, is seen as a bit of an environmental policy expert given her years coordinating environmental policy under the Clinton administration. She also headed Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.
She warns that climate change “presents a serious global threat to our health, economic well-being and national security,” according to a campaign brief, and pledged to “lead the way to a healthier and safer environment by working to pass commonsense climate protections with investments in energy efficiency and clean energy.”
Two other states that Democrats had seen as possible pick-ups in the Senate—Florida and Ohio—now appear more likely to stay in the Republican column. Rubio announced his retirement only to reconsider after he withdrew from the Republican presidential primary; he has opened a significant lead over Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy (D).
In Ohio, incumbent Portman was initially thought to be vulnerable to a challenge by former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. Portman however has been widely credited for running a strong campaign—picking up labor union and other support from groups usually backing Democrats—and is widely considered the favorite there.
On his environmental and climate record, Portman points to his leadership role on several energy bills in recent years, particularly bills to boost energy efficiency where he has picked up significant Democratic support. Portman has worked closely for years with New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) on many of those measures.
Asked how he would portray his environmental record to an undecided Ohio voter, Portman rattled off a half-dozen initiatives, from his work to cut algae blooms in the Great Lakes to providing U.S. support for preserving tropical forests overseas.
“I’ve been working together across the aisle to actually make progress on reducing emissions and protecting the environment,” Portman told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m proud of what we’ve already accomplished, and I’m a leader.”
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