In the Battle Over the Senate, Both Parties’ Candidates Are Playing to the Middle on Climate Change

Advocates for action on global warming want to oust Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and put Democrats in charge. But real progress will take more than that.

People march from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for the People's Climate Movement on April 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
People march from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for the People's Climate Movement on April 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

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This piece introduces a series of stories examining the climate records of candidates in key Senate races on the ballot in November.

“It died in the Senate.” That brief phrase could be etched on the memorial of every U.S. legislative effort to address climate change: treaties, economy-wide caps on carbon, lasting support for renewable energy, a public works program on the scale of the New Deal.

It is an epitaph that climate advocates argue the nation can no longer afford.

In their view, President Donald Trump’s historic abandonment of climate policy has deepened the peril of a warming planet for the United States and the world. The second-largest carbon polluter has retreated from the international effort to address the climate crisis, while reducing oversight of its industry and protection of its public lands. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions have been tracking scientists’ worst-case scenarios, with record wildfires and storm—costly in damage and lives—heralding the disruption to come.

The U.S. Senate, largely through inaction, helped bring the nation to this critical moment. It thwarted the plans of the last two Democratic presidents to act on climate change. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has buried House-passed measures to affirm the Paris climate accord; to protect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts from offshore drilling; and to curb the influence of wealthy interests like the fossil fuel industry. He maneuvered a vote giving oil drillers their long-sought access to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and engineered another to demonstrate that there was no hope for a Green New Deal as long as he was in charge. Under his watch, senators have not even been permitted to vote on the statement that Congress and the president have a responsibility to act on global warming. 


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But McConnell’s hold on power is more precarious than it has been at any time since he took control five years ago, and advocates of climate action are as determined to wrest the senatorial reins from his hands as they are to unseat President Donald Trump.

“We are extremely focused on flipping control of the Senate,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, which with 2 million members is one of the largest environmental advocacy groups. McConnell, she said, is “a climate denier who has stood in the way of climate progress at every step. He’s aided and abetted the Trump administration, the most anti-environmental and anti-climate action administration we’ve ever had.”

Will There Be a Senate Shift in November?

While supporting the Democratic presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the league has volunteers campaigning across the country to help Democrats win a trifecta: the White House and both chambers of Congress. “Moving forward on solutions to the climate crisis and climate justice at a scale that is commensurate with the problem is going to require having a majority in the Senate as well as the House,” Sittenfeld said.

But because of the geography of politics in the United States, with most states voting reliably red or reliably blue, the incumbent party has a lock on the races in two-thirds of the 35 Senate elections this fall. That means control of the Senate and the future of climate policy rests on the outcome of just six races that are considered true toss ups, and perhaps a half-dozen more where the underdog could pull off a surprising victory. The Democrats will need a net gain of three seats—four if President Trump wins re-election—to flip the Senate. 

Tap Dancing for Moderates

Despite the importance of the contested Senate races for the future of U.S. policy on climate change, and indeed, for global cooperation on a solution, climate change is not considered a top issue in any of those contests. That’s not a bug of the current political system but a feature. Because climate has become so partisan, candidates of both parties in swing states are either avoiding the topic or adjusting their position toward the center for fear of turning off the moderate voters they need to win.

On the Republican side, two incumbents who are fighting to keep their seats—Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina—have records they can use to neutralize their party’s anti-science stance on climate somewhat. Both can fairly assert that they long have accepted the science of climate change, and early on, they both bucked Trump in helping to kill a fast-track Congressional repeal of the Obama administration’s rules for controlling the potent greenhouse gas methane. Collins has opposed some of Trump’s environmental agency nominees, and Graham has recently joined environmental caucus groups on Capitol Hill. 

11 Key Senate Races

Other Senate Republicans in contested races have sought to divert attention from climate change by embracing environmental protection in a broader sense. Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, for example, have touted their sponsorship of the Great American Outdoors Act, which Trump signed this summer. The Act provides $10 billion to address the longstanding maintenance backlog in the National Park Service and establish permanent funding for its Land and Conservation Fund.

Still other Senate Republicans in battleground races have sought to remake their images, declaring that they now accept the science of human-caused global warming, despite their fervent efforts to preserve the fossil fuel industry’s future. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina claims to be staking out a middle ground on climate action—although he has not backed any particular proposal. McConnell told reporters last year he believed in human-driven climate change, adding, “The question is what do you do about it.” Under his leadership, the Senate has left that question unanswered.

The only Republican in a contested Senate race who is an unabashed climate denier is former college football coach Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who has also said about the coronavirus shutdown, “I think it might be an experiment for the Green New Deal.”

For most climate activists, there is little practical difference between Tuberville, who argues that only God can change the climate, and Graham, who says he would like to see the GOP come up with a climate plan. The environmental movement is working to block or oust Republicans across the board.

The Environmental Defense Fund Action has put out statements accusing  Gardner in Colorado of using the Outdoors Act to obscure his anti-environmental voting record (he has a lifetime LCV score of 11 percent), and EDF Action also plans advertising in Montana against Daines. “Supporting one bill isn’t enough,” said Jack Pratt, the group’s senior political director “The truth is that this is a convenient way for Gardner and Daines to try to gain political cover in an attempt to make up for their six years of actively voting against their constituents’ air, water and health.”

Even Collins, who has long had the best pro-environmental voting record in the Senate GOP—61 percent, according to the conservation voters league’s scorecard—crossed a line when she said she opposed drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge but then voted for it anyway because it was tucked into Trump’s tax cut bill.

“Unfortunately, when we really needed Senator Collins’ support, she wasn’t there,” said Sittenfeld. LCV is actively supporting Collins’ Democratic rival, Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. EDF Action, which backed Collins in the past, has stayed out of the Maine race.

But the GOP candidates aren’t trying to win the hearts of hard-core environmentalists. They are trying to appeal to moderate voters who might be persuaded by the modest steps some Republicans have taken away from the denial wing of their party.

Democratic candidates in the contested Senate races, who are pursuing the same set of middle-ground voters, have the opposite problem: they have to show they don’t favor radical climate action. Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger in Georgia; Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who is taking on McConnell in Kentucky; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper all have sought to distance themselves from the Green New Deal.

McGrath is also cautious about Biden’s $2 trillion climate proposal. With her eye clearly on her coal state’s voters, she said that Biden should focus more on helping fossil fuel-dependent communities make an economic transition. Hickenlooper seems in sync with Biden in favoring no new oil and gas leasing on public land, but when he was governor, he blocked community fracking bans in support of the state’s $13.5 billion oil and gas industry.

Predictably, many climate activists are turned off by the middle-of-the-road climate plans of some Democratic candidates in critical states. The youth-led Sunrise Movement threw its weight behind the candidates that challenged McGrath and Hickenlooper from the left in the primaries, and the scars of those lost battles have yet to heal. “In no way will we be publicly endorsing McGrath or supporting her unless she makes a radical left turn,” said Lily Gardner, a Sunrise activist in Lexington.

For Democrats like McGrath, the hope is that the lack of support they have on the left will be made up by the voters they win over in the middle. But in Kentucky, a state that Trump won by 30 points in 2016, the Democrats don’t want to see any of their voters sitting on the sidelines.

Tempered Optimism

Kentucky will be tough, but overall, the Democrats’ chances look good in the Senate this November, according to polls and close observers like the Cook Political Report. In the six toss-up seats—Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina—Republican incumbents are playing defense, and Trump’s drop in popularity since the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped them.

Still, the progressives’ discontent underscores a harsh reality for advocates of climate action. If Democrats do flip the Senate, it will be due to victories by a slew of climate moderates. 

They will be seated in a closely divided Senate, where the 15 states that are home to 66 percent of the population hold only 30 percent of the voting power. That power is diminished further if the Senate keeps its tradition of the filibuster, which requires not just a simple majority, but 60 votes to pass major legislation.

To get any climate plan through the Senate may require legislation that can pass muster with both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a fierce advocate of the Green New Deal, and moderates like McGrath, who wants to see the details before she endorses such a plan, and Hickenlooper, who worries about the risk of setting unachievable goals.

Flipping control of the Senate may be a necessary first step, but the greater challenge may be finding the common purpose that will bring climate action to life.