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."