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Kelly Ayotte and the Rise of Openly Green Republicans

Alex Wong/Getty

There’s a powerful moment occurring on climate change right now in the GOP. As Greg Sargent writes in our latest issue, the party's solid wall of science-denial has begun to crack. In September, eleven House Republicans signed a resolution calling climate change a manmade problem that must be fixed. Then, last Thursday, in another sign of the shift, four senators—Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, Lamar Alexander, and Lindsey Graham—announced their own energy and environment working group.

So far, this is a trickle, not a flood, and it doesn’t mean the larger GOP will soon come around to a sensible climate platform. But it does say something hopeful about the state of America's climate politics. This small but growing cadre of climate-positive Republicans understands that denying the science, or ignoring the issue, increasingly makes even conservatives appear out of touch with voters. Two of the senators in the new working group, Kirk and Ayotte, face immediate political pressures—tough 2016 reelection battles against Democratic opponents who boast stronger environmental credentials. Ayotte, though, is the clearest example of a Republican running toward the issue to boost her electability.

Before joining the Senate, Ayotte had a positive environmental record as the attorney general in New Hampshire, having fought the Bush administration for failing to regulate carbon. But for much of her first Senate term, she was hard to distinguish from conservative Republicans who do not think climate change is real, or worth addressing. During her 2010 campaign, she signed an Americans for Prosperity pledge to vote against pro-climate legislation like cap-and-trade, and she received regular positive ratings from the group on her conservative voting record (and low ratings from environmentalists).

Ayotte made her first high-profile move to support climate change policy at the beginning of the year. While the Senate considered amendments on a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, Ayotte broke with her party ten times, including opposing an amendment to curb the president’s powers to forge an international climate treaty. She also was one of only five Republicans senators who voted yes on a resolution that said human activity is driving climate change.

In October, Ayotte became the first Republican senator to embrace President Barack Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever limits on greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. "After carefully reviewing this plan and talking with members of our business community, environmental groups, and other stakeholders, I have decided to support the Clean Power Plan to address climate change through clean energy solutions that will protect our environment," she said in a statement. Ayotte said she “will carefully monitor implementation of the plan to make sure there is sufficient flexibility for New Hampshire to meet its goals and that the plan does not have an adverse impact on Granite State energy costs."

What inspired her dramatic shift? For starters, Ayotte has a formidable opponent next year—Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who trails the senator by only a few points in polling. Hassan has strong green credentials to lean on, having backed a number of pro-clean energy bills and climate bills over her career. Ayotte's endorsement of the Clean Power Plan came just days after Hassan endorsed it and urged members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation to follow her lead. The timing could hardly have been a coincidence. 

Campaign donations and grassroots pressure may also have aided Ayotte's change of mind. The senator has long been a favorite of Koch Industries, having received $20,700 from the company and a private fundraiser from David Koch just this fall. This cycle, though, she’s also attracted attention from a pro-climate GOP donor, Jay Faison, who donated $500,000 a few months ago. The League of Conservation Voters in New Hampshire organized 7,000 phone calls to her office, 2,500 letters, and 6,500 petition signatures to push Ayotte to back the Clean Power Plan. On Wednesday, the Environmental Defense Fund aired ads in New Hampshire thanking Ayotte.

While other congressional Republicans fear a right-wing backlash if they start talking like environmentalists, Ayotte faces little threat from New Hampshire conservatives. As in many northeastern states, a majority of voters in New Hampshire accept that climate change is happening. Another 66 percent of state voters support setting strict limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which is exactly what the Clean Power Plan sets out to do. Plus, the state is already poised to meet the EPA's target for New Hampshire—cutting carbon in the electricity sector by 23 percent—so there's likely to be little political friction over the plan's implementation. 

Even so, Ayotte would only embrace the issue if she thought it could help her politically. Clearly, she thinks it can—for reasons that will likely sway other Republicans to move in a similar direction over time. Strategists, particularly GOP pollsters, have tended to claim that since climate ranks relatively low on a list of voter concerns. Republicans should feel free to ignore it. There’s some truth to their criticism: When compared to other issues, including health, economy, foreign policy, and immigration, addressing climate change usually ranks pretty far down on those lists. Yet Americans believe climate change is real, and 42 percent say they are very concerned about the threat it poses to global stability. President Obama, Pope Francis, and international leaders' big push on climate change in the last year has only helped to raise awareness about the problem. Moderate Republicans may be the first to feel the pressure from the public, but you could see conservatives begin to join their numbers over the next few election cycles. As the tide turns, they'll have less to fear in political backlash when they embrace climate solutions.

There's always been an intraparty GOP debate about how to approach climate change, but it's breaking out into the open now. Just one year ago, only anonymously quoted staffers would risk coming forward to say the party needed a real environmental platform. Now, you’re seeing Republicans start to come forward because it’s too risky for them to stay silent. This small group could grow as more Republicans realize climate denial isn’t sustainable.