On the southern tip of Florida, where rising seas and raging storms converge on coastal paradise, the battle for the House of Representatives is focused on climate change more than any other congressional race.
It is also epicenter of a struggle within the environmental movement.
Should environmentalists reward the courage of Republicans who buck party orthodoxy and embrace climate science, in hopes of building bipartisan consensus? Or should they work single-mindedly to flip the House to the Democrats, given the dim prospects for action in any GOP-controlled Congress?
The dilemma is manifest in the 26th District in South Florida, where Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is seeking re-election in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 16 points two years ago. Curbelo walks along the water's edge in one of his ads, while superimposed headlines praise his bipartisan work on climate and the Everglades. "Protecting the environment isn't just a slogan to me," he says.
Curbelo had a pro-environment voting record of 23 percent in 2017, according to the League of Conservation Voters—one of the higher scores among House Republicans, who averaged 5 percent. It would have been higher but he missed several environmental votes while he was home in his district as Hurricane Irma headed for Florida. Curbelo co-founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in Congress, and he advanced one of its goals last summer when he introduced legislation to put a price on carbon.
But Curbelo's record is not unalloyed in the view of many environmentalists—he voted to increase natural gas exports and speed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, for example. Moreover, his carbon tax bill is not going anywhere with the GOP in charge, which is the crux of the environmental appeal being made by Curbelo's opponent, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Mucarsel-Powell, a political newcomer who has been a fundraiser and development consultant for health care and environmental nonprofits, including the Coral Restoration Foundation, argues that Curbelo's actual accomplishments on climate have been slim. "Our water, our reef, our environment are in danger, and Republicans have done nothing," says one of her ads, in which she delivers her message from underwater in a scuba suit.
'Seas Are Rising Faster than GOP Acceptance of Climate Science'
The Environmental Defense Fund Action Fund doesn't dispute Mucarsel-Powell's point, but it has supported Curbelo—the only big environmental group to do so. In September, EDF Action spent $41,920 on digital ads praising the two-term congressman for "bipartisan leadership to fight climate change," a small fraction of the $4.8 million the group has spent on the midterm election.
"We're absolutely clear on the big picture stakes of this election cycle, and we are absolutely conscious in everything we do of the broader political realities of 2018," said Jack Pratt, senior political director of EDF Action. "But we also have a bipartisan tradition here at EDF Action, and we're working to make sure that when someone steps out to support climate reality, they don't become a cautionary tale.
"Down the road, that becomes very, very important," Pratt said. In EDF's view, climate champions will be needed from both sides of the aisle when the U.S. resumes efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
On the other side of the tactical division is R.L. Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a small super PAC that has spent $4,500 on digital ads in support of Mucarsel-Powell. "She is a climate hawk and has the background on coral and ocean acidification and bleaching," said Miller.
Miller has derided Curbelo's Climate Solutions Caucus as "climate peacocks" who are making an empty show of concern about climate to woo the voters of their swing districts. With 45 Republicans and 45 Democrats in the caucus (there's a strict "Noah's Ark rule" that members join in bipartisan pairs), it is large enough to be a powerful voting bloc. But GOP caucus members mostly have refused to go along with Curbelo on tough votes opposing party leaders, opting instead to support a resolution this summer that opposed a carbon tax.
"If Curbelo had been able to do more than bring five peacocks along with him, I would have laid off," said Miller. "Instead, he demonstrated that the peacock caucus is ineffective."
As for the risk that rooting out Republicans like Curbelo will leave no basis for bipartisan deal-making on climate issues in the future, Miller said, "The seas are rising faster than Republican acceptance of climate science."
The LCV, which is spending a record $15 million in an effort to regain a green majority in the House of Representatives this election cycle, is staying out of the Curbelo race—a tacit show of support for his climate stance.
LCV is also taking no sides in Pennsylvania's 1st District race in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, another Climate Solutions Caucus member, is seeking re-election. Fitzpatrick has by far the highest LCV score among House Republicans—71 percent—and was one of just two GOP caucus members to co-sponsor Curbelo's carbon tax bill. EDF Action also spent $30,270 on ads supporting Fitzpatrick.
But EDF Action is opposing several Climate Solutions Caucus members who have poor environmental records. "To be clear, we definitely distinguish between someone who is doing something politically motivated, versus someone who can back it up with their record," Pratt said.
Pratt points to Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who is in a close battle to keep his seat, as an example of a candidate whose votes (zero on LCV's scorecard last year) don't match his rhetoric. In a recent debate with his challenger, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, Heller touted his support for including tax breaks for renewable energy in the omnibus tax bill and said, "I'm not a climate denier." However, Heller went on to suggest, incorrectly, that the science was inconclusive on humanity's role in driving global warming: "We'll continue to look at the science to see how much man has been involved in this." And in past years, Heller voted repeatedly against extending renewable energy tax credits.
"Some of these folks want to have it both ways," said Pratt. EDF Action has spent $550,000 in advertising to defeat Heller.
What They Do, Not What They Say
Most GOP congressional incumbents have such poor environmental voting records that opposing them is not a difficult call for environmental groups.
For example, Republican Rep. Scott Taylor, who is running for re-election in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of the state's oceanfront, including the naval station at Norfolk, has an LCV score of 6 percent. Although Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, is a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus, he has voted against rules to rein in greenhouse gases from power plants and oil and gas operations or to account for the cost of climate change in federal regulations. He voted in July with the House GOP majority on a resolution to denounce carbon taxes.
Taylor "provides only lip service to environmental issues and votes the wrong way when he thinks no one is looking," his Democratic opponent, Navy veteran and nuclear engineer Elaine Luria, said at a candidate forum this month. Luria has sought to frame climate change as a national security issue and "a real and present threat to our way of life" in the district.
The Taylor-Luria race is considered a toss-up by Cook Political Report. Although Trump won Virginia's 2nd District with 48 percent of the vote, the majority of the district's voters opposed him. Last year, the district voted for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, and two of its seats in Virginia's Legislature flipped from Republican to Democrat.
Facing an electorate that appears to be trending blue, Taylor has emphasized that he voted against weakening federal environmental protections for the Chesapeake Bay and came out in opposition to Trump's plan to open up the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. But Taylor voted as recently as June against an effort to block Trump's drilling plan. He also has voted to weaken the federal government's mandate to coordinate with state and local communities on ocean management.
"This greenwashing we are seeing from Scott Taylor is absurd," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV's vice president for government affairs. "He can't pretend he cares about the environment and Virginia's coast when he votes against it at every opportunity."
A Different View, Focused on Technology
But one group is supporting Taylor based on his environmental record: ClearPath Action Fund, founded by North Carolina entrepreneur Jay Faison to advance "conservative clean energy solutions." ClearPath has spent $1.9 million so far this election cycle in support of Republicans, including nearly $500,000 each on Curbelo and Heller and $125,000 on Taylor.
Among the solutions ClearPath advocates are ideas that have divided the large environmental groups: nuclear power, natural gas as a lower-carbon alternative to coal, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Faison argues that the fiscal 2018 budget deal approved by Congress should be considered a win for clean energy; it included expansion of a tax credit for CCS deployment and large increases for cutting-edge energy research.
"There's a whole list of things that lower greenhouse gas emissions that Republicans have done that they don't get rewarded for," argues Faison. He said most environmental groups focus on renewables, but he said ClearPath's mission is to promote other solutions that don't get attention.
Other environmental groups "are oriented around EPA or restricting fossil fuels, and that's great, but that's not our slice," Faison said. He said it doesn't surprise or bother him that some of the candidates ClearPath is backing, like Taylor, have voted against the notion of a carbon tax.
"There are different approaches—you can either subsidize the capturing of carbon, or you could tax its competitors. What's more politically do-able?" asked Faison. "We're in the technology-push camp and are getting things done. There's an army people in the other camp, and they're not getting anything done."
The fact that congressional candidates this year are sparring over climate change—in terms of who would be better for getting things done—is a political inflection point. Polling done earlier this summer for LCV and EDF Action in 20 congressional battleground districts showed that pro-environment messaging has the potential to swing these close races. Numerous Democratic candidates are running ads in which they promise to be advocates for clean energy, clean water and public lands protection. Environmental issues have become especially prominent in governor's races, particularly in Florida, hit by toxic red tide algae on the coasts this summer.
In an odd twist, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has tried to play the green card in Florida, running ads last week to support Curbelo that accuse his Democratic opponent of accepting "dirty coal money." Mucarsel-Powell's campaign finance records show no such donations, and the Center for Responsive Politics' tally shows that 93 percent of coal industry political contributions in this congressional election cycle, $1.6 million, went to Republicans. The NRCC did not respond to a request for an explanation of the ad.
The proliferation of appeals to constituents who are focused on the environment, while potentially confusing for voters, is a sign that the issues have gained traction, even as President Donald Trump's administration has abandoned climate action.
"It's a sign that the environment generally and in some cases, climate change itself, are proving more politically salient than they did in past terms, and [candidates] are looking for proof points of their moderation," said Pratt. "But I still think that, especially given the larger context, you really have to be very careful to look at their records to see if they've taken action that merits support."
Top photo: Rep. Carlos Curbelo. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images