Conservative Group Plans to Push Republicans Toward Action on Climate, Cleaner Energy

Coral Davenport
National Journal

In a campaign season where energy and climate change have become partisan lightning rods, a small but growing group of Republicans are pushing back against their party’s orthodoxy on both issues.

Leading members of the Christian Coalition and the Young Republicans on Monday will launch nationwide the Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, a grassroots group aimed at engaging Republicans on the goals of cutting oil use, backing alternative energy and clean-air regulations, and fighting climate change.

The announcement comes less than a month after the rollout of a new conservative-run campaign and think tank, the Energy and Enterprise Institute, aimed at winning Republicans over to the idea of using the tax code to cut carbon pollution and fossil fuel use.

Both groups have an uphill battle. Over the past two years, the Republican Party has galvanized around the fossil fuel industry, drifting far away from its position in 2004 when presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona actually campaigned on the promise to address climate change.

The 2010 congressional races saw a slew of super PAC attack ads against lawmakers who backed climate change policy. This year, the presidential primaries saw moderate Republicans, including presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney—who had once pushed for climate and clean-energy policies—abandoning those positions and walking back his former acceptance of the science that says human activities cause climate change.

This year’s campaign has been marked by GOP attacks on President Obama’s clean-energy policies, as exemplified by the failed solar company Solyndra, and a fierce partisan fight over what Republicans call Obama’s “war on coal,” including efforts by his Environmental Protection Agency to tighten regulations on pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The fossil fuel industry is spending mightily to keep the GOP on its side: Of the $30 million the oil, coal, and gas industries have spent so far to influence the 2012 election cycle, 88 percent has gone to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s in that atmosphere that the two cofounders of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, Michele Combs and Brian Smith, hope to make a difference in their party’s approach to energy. Both have rock-solid conservative bona fides.

Combs is communications director for the Christian Coalition of America, which calls itself the nation’s largest conservative grassroots organization. Her mother, Roberta Combs, is the coalition’s president. Growing up, Combs was a leader in the Young Republicans—she was elected “Young Republican of the Year” in 1989. Before working for the Christian Coalition, she ran a special-events company that produced events for Republican campaigns, conventions, and the George W. Bush inauguration.

Roberta Combs led a 2010 lobbying push by the Christian Coalition to push GOP lawmakers to act on climate change; Michele Combs says she was inspired to engage on clean-energy issues when she was pregnant and told she couldn’t eat fish because they may be tainted with mercury, which is emitted from coal-fired power plants.

Smith, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and former cochair of the Young Republican National Federation Policy Committee, is pursuing a joint degree in business administration and engineering at Northwestern University, and worked on energy technology and security issues at Pentagon labs.

The pair wants to harness the resources and networks of the Christian Coalition and Young Republicans at events across the country to make the case to conservatives that they should back clean-energy and climate policies. Combs and Smith said they’ll press the case by presenting alternative energy, climate change, and clean air as nonpartisan issues affecting families and national security.

The group intends to replicate the organizational model of the Young Republicans, creating city, regional, and state chairmen.   

“We want to take this issue and make it not so partisan,” Combs told National Journal last week. “We believe this is a family issue. I’m optimistic that we can make young conservatives comfortable talking about this. I think it’s possible to talk about this and not be labeled a heretic. For younger conservatives, this is a lot more acceptable to talk about.”

Added Smith: “We want to make it safe for Republicans to debate climate change.”

The group has already held events in Florida, Ohio, and South Carolina, and plans further events—rallies, speeches, roundtables, and town halls—in New Hampshire and other 2012 battleground states.

Juan Lopez, a Florida employment lawyer, is the group’s Florida chairman and a lifelong Republican. He acknowledged that within the Republican Party, the new group represents a lone voice—one with a message that’s sometimes at odds with the Romney-Ryan presidential campaign, which is pushing an aggressive expansion of oil drilling. The ticket’s vice presidential nominee and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed dramatic cuts to clean-energy spending in his budget proposal.

“The leaders of the party are reasonable people,” Lopez said. “They listen to the voices of reason. Ryan is an outdoorsman, he’s in favor of clean air. He listens to all voices…. Republican Party leaders are reasonable, and we’ll get the message across by having our voices heard.” 

The group hopes to work closely with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has strong ties to the Christian Coalition and who in 2010 teamed with Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., on a sweeping climate-change bill. But although Graham has frequently expressed the need to tackle energy and climate-change issues, he pulled his support from the bill before it was introduced. And it’s likely to be tougher for him to go out on a limb on issues that inflame his party as he looks toward a Senate primary race in 2014.

Smith said he doesn’t expect the group to present specific climate and energy legislative proposals, at least at the outset, but rather to try to simply fire up young conservatives on the issues. “We want to help conservatives feel comfortable taking tough votes and not getting shot down if they support clean-energy technology.”

It remains to be seen whether the new handful of groups can make an impact in a party where fossil fuel interests, including powerhouse lobbying groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, have an outsized impact on legislation and campaign media spending.

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House energy official who is now a senior strategist at the Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that the growth of pro-climate voices in the GOP could signal a cyclical return of the party to the issue. “It was just four years ago that John McCain was the nominee and you had dozens of Republicans sponsoring climate change legislation,” he said. “It’s due for a rebound at some point.”