Republicans Pounce on Obama’s Global-Warming Regulations for Political Fodder

President Barack Obama meets with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Tuesday, Feb., 14, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
National Journal
Justice Gilpin-Green and Coral Davenport
Sept. 22, 2013, 8:47 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama sees his new glob­al-warm­ing reg­u­la­tions as a corner­stone of his leg­acy. Re­pub­lic­ans see them as fresh polit­ic­al am­muni­tion.

On Fri­day, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency un­veiled the first in a series of his­tor­ic and con­tro­ver­sial cli­mate-change rules aimed at rein­ing in car­bon pol­lu­tion from coal-fired power plants, the na­tion’s top source of green­house-gas emis­sions.

Re­pub­lic­an strategists say they see Obama’s cli­mate rules as a huge polit­ic­al li­ab­il­ity — and they are rar­ing to use cli­mate policy broadly as a weapon against Demo­crats in the 2014 midterm elec­tions.

“I’m look­ing at data in com­pet­it­ive House races that shows that this suck­er will be a loser,” said Brock Mc­Cle­ary, a poll­ster for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. “If in 2014, Obama­care will be the right jab, cli­mate policy will be the left.”

That dy­nam­ic would es­sen­tially re­vis­it the top two lines of at­tack that House Re­pub­lic­ans used to win a land­slide ma­jor­ity in 2010.

In that cam­paign, the GOP went after House Demo­crats who voted for Obama’s health care law — which, of course, ul­ti­mately passed — and his ef­fort at passing a cli­mate-change law, which ul­ti­mately failed in the Sen­ate. This time around, hav­ing failed to move cli­mate change through Con­gress, Obama has flexed his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity, us­ing EPA to push through cli­mate policy that he couldn’t get through Con­gress.

That feeds dir­ectly in­to the broad­er Re­pub­lic­an line of at­tack against Obama as a pres­id­ent who by­passes Con­gress and uses his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to ag­gress­ively reg­u­late the U.S. eco­nomy — as well as the long­stand­ing charge that the pres­id­ent, in his quest to cut glob­al-warm­ing pol­lu­tion, is wa­ging a “war on coal.”

That charge failed to un­seat Obama in 2012. But GOP strategists are bet­ting that it could net them big wins in coal and rust-belt states and con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts in 2014.

On Fri­day, an hour after Obama’s EPA chief, Gina Mc­Carthy, form­ally an­nounced the cli­mate rules, strategists began link­ing them to 2014 Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates. The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee sent out a blast e-mail, titled “Demo­crats Side With Obama’s Rad­ic­al EPA over Loc­al Work­ers, Busi­ness and In­dustry,” to out­lets in the home states of sev­en Demo­crats in com­pet­it­ive races: Sens. Mark Be­gich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, and Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana; Reps. Bruce Bra­ley of Iowa and Gary Peters of Michigan; and Sec­ret­ar­ies of State Nat­alie Ten­nant of West Vir­gin­ia and Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes of Ken­tucky.

“Cli­mate policy will play a ma­jor role in the cam­paign in spe­cif­ic areas,” said Jordan Dav­is, policy dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. His cam­paign’s top tar­get is Demo­crat­ic Rep. Nick Ra­hall of West Vir­gin­ia, and he ex­pects to use Obama’s cli­mate policy to at­tack Demo­crats in the coal-rich areas of west­ern Pennsylvania, east­ern Ohio, and south­ern Illinois.

Demo­crats in coal dis­tricts are already mov­ing to pro­tect their elec­tion chances by dis­tan­cing them­selves from the pres­id­ent’s rules.

“I am dead-set against the EPA and their scheme to is­sue emis­sions stand­ards that would make it im­possible for new coal-fired power plants to be con­struc­ted,” Ra­hall said in a state­ment.

In­ter­est­ingly, Dav­is said that the fo­cus of the cam­paigns will not be on un­der­min­ing the sci­ence of cli­mate change. Many Re­pub­lic­ans are vo­cal den­iers of the es­tab­lished sci­ence of cli­mate change — an is­sue on which Demo­crats are now ham­mer­ing them.

Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion, the ad­vocacy group re­tooled from Obama’s reelec­tion cam­paign, has launched a sys­tem­at­ic cam­paign to high­light GOP “cli­mate den­iers.” Demo­crats are poun­cing on polls show­ing that young­er voters, in par­tic­u­lar, are more likely to sup­port can­did­ates who back cli­mate ac­tion and dis­trust can­did­ates who deny cli­mate sci­ence. A Ju­ly poll of un­der-35 voters, con­duc­ted by the Demo­crat­ic Ben­en­son Strategy Group and the Re­pub­lic­an GS Strategy Group, found that 79 per­cent would be more likely to vote for a can­did­ate who sup­por­ted the pres­id­ent’s cli­mate-change plan, and 73 per­cent would be less likely to vote for a can­did­ate who op­posed the plan.

“It’s not so much about the cli­mate sci­ence,” Dav­is said. “We have a lot of mem­bers in our caucus who are not crazy cli­mate den­iers. It’s about the policy.”

The new reg­u­la­tions will give House Re­pub­lic­ans fresh fod­der to force Demo­crats to take tough votes that the GOP hopes will re­ver­ber­ate dur­ing the midterm elec­tions. Already, Rep. Ed Whit­field of Ken­tucky, a coal-state Re­pub­lic­an and un­abashed skep­tic of the sci­ence of cli­mate change, plans to in­tro­duce a bill on the House floor to block the new EPA rule.

In June 2014, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to pro­pose a much more con­tro­ver­sial reg­u­la­tion slash­ing emis­sions from ex­ist­ing coal-fired power plants — a rule that could lead to the clos­ure of op­er­at­ing coal plants. Once that rule comes out, House Re­pub­lic­ans can force Demo­crats to take a vote on that pro­pos­al — just five months away from the midterm elec­tions.

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is giv­ing us a little bit of a gift by put­ting out these cli­mate reg­u­la­tions so close to the elec­tion,” Dav­is said.

Re­pub­lic­an and fossil-fuel cam­paigns are also go­ing after Demo­crats for sup­port­ing an­oth­er cli­mate policy: a car­bon tax. Eco­nom­ists have long hailed a price on car­bon pol­lu­tion as the most ef­fect­ive tool to fight glob­al warm­ing. While a car­bon tax stands no chance of en­act­ment in the cur­rent Con­gress, it has re­peatedly flared around en­ergy, cli­mate, and tax-policy de­bates. Earli­er this year, House Demo­crats brought a budget bill to the floor that in­cluded a car­bon tax — an­oth­er vote that Re­pub­lic­ans plan to use against Demo­crats in 2014.

Deep-pock­eted ad­vocacy groups are already get­ting in­to the act. The Amer­ic­an En­ergy Al­li­ance, a fossil-fuel ad­vocacy group fun­ded in part by the liber­tari­an act­iv­ists Charles and Dav­id Koch, who also fund groups that ques­tion the sci­ence of cli­mate change, last month launched a $750,000 ad cam­paign tar­get­ing Demo­crat­ic Sens. Hagan of North Car­o­lina and Be­gich of Alaska for sup­port­ing a car­bon tax. Both sen­at­ors voted against an amend­ment from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have blocked a car­bon tax.

And last week, the group launched ra­dio ads tar­get­ing six House Demo­crats — Bruce Bra­ley of Iowa, Cheri Bus­tos of Illinois, Ann Kirk­patrick of Ari­zona, Patrick Murphy of Flor­ida, Rick No­lan of Min­nesota, and Bill Owens of New York — for sup­port­ing the car­bon tax via the Demo­crats’ budget bill.

More ads will fol­low on the heels of the cli­mate reg­u­la­tions, said Thomas Pyle, pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an En­ergy Al­li­ance. “There will be plenty of op­por­tun­ity to put people on the re­cord,” he said. “En­ergy is go­ing to be a big factor in 2014, there’s no doubt about it.”

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