Sen. Kelly Ayotte says politics has nothing to do with her support for President Obama’s sweeping climate-change plan.
“I took the position looking at the impact on New Hampshire, and that’s my focus. The issues in terms of the ballot box—other people can analyze that that are political pundits,” the New Hampshire Republican said in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Ayotte, one of the most vulnerable GOP members up for reelection next year, was answering a question about the politics of her recently announced backing of Environmental Protection Agency rules mandating cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants.
She’s the first (and thus far only) GOP senator to back the rules, a stance that drew applause from several green groups but puts her starkly at odds with her party’s main White House hopefuls and Capitol Hill leadership, who are pushing to block the regulations.
But while Ayotte says her motivations are unrelated to the 2016 elections, her backing of the EPA initiative could affect her race against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan (a contest that National Journal political analyst Charlie Cook calls a “toss-up”).
And it’s a race that will help decide the balance of power in the Senate, as Republicans defend a number of vulnerable seats in a cycle that has Democrats hoping to regain control of the chamber.
“New Hampshire Republicans have more moderate opinions on climate change and environmental regulation than you will find among Republicans elsewhere,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “I think what she is hoping to do is to shore up her standing among independent voters here, which is net favorable, and I think she does so without fear of losing too many Republicans.”
Scala sees Ayotte seeking to take climate change and the environment “off the front burner” in the race.
The power-plant regulations are the central pillar of Obama’s second-term climate agenda, and they’re a top priority for environmentalists, including the groups that are most active in electoral politics.
The two groups with the biggest political operations—the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club—both endorsed Ayotte’s Democratic opponent, Paul Hodes, in the 2010 race for the open seat that former Sen. Judd Gregg was vacating.
But the groups say they have not made any decisions about getting involved in the 2016 New Hampshire contest.
“It is a long way off in terms of LCV’s consideration of this race,” said Rob Werner, LCV’s New Hampshire state director. He called Ayotte’s stance on the climate plan “highly significant,” but added that LCV won’t make a decision on involvement in the race until sometime next year.
In 2010, the group spent at least $115,000 trying unsuccessfully to elect Hodes in his race against Ayotte, according to Federal Election Commission figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
While the Sierra Club welcomes Ayotte’s stance on the power-plant rule, the group says its process will examine Ayotte’s record more broadly.
“Our endorsements originate from the ground up, and that process has not yet begun for this race. During the course of any endorsement consideration, multiple factors are taken into account, including a candidate’s voting record on policies designed to ensure that all American families have clean air, clean water, and a safe climate,” said Khalid Pitts, the group’s political director, in a statement to National Journal.
Similarly, an aide to California billionaire and climate activist Tom Steyer, who poured $74 million into various 2014 contests with mixed results and plans to get involved in multiple 2016 races, did not say whether he would spend money on the New Hampshire contest.
Ayotte’s campaign spokeswoman did not respond to an inquiry about whether she would seek the endorsement of environmental groups or is at least hoping they do not work against her in next year’s election.
Scala, the New Hampshire politics expert, said that keeping green groups active in elections away from her race would be a victory. “Surely, she would hope to keep a group like that on the sidelines in New Hampshire,” he said of Steyer’s operation.
Ayotte, whose career ranking on LCV’s scorecard is just 23 percent, remains on the other side of green groups on multiple issues they prioritize, including the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline.
And on Tuesday, she voted in favor of GOP-led bills to overturn another green-movement priority: new EPA regulations aimed at ensuring Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands. Major business groups and Republicans call the rules an overreach. One of them advanced but has already drawn a White House veto threat.
Still, Ayotte has increasingly been emphasizing climate change, the biggest issue overall for the environmental movement.
Late last week, she and three other GOP senators—Lindsey Graham, Mark Kirk, and Lamar Alexander—announced a “Senate Energy and Environment Working Group that will focus on ways we can protect our environment and climate while also bolstering clean energy innovation that helps drive job creation.”
The group will “meet periodically to discuss general energy and environmental issues and exchange ideas about potential legislation,” the Oct. 29 announcement stated.
And one major environmental group is already spending money to highlight Ayotte’s stance on the carbon-emissions rules for power plants. In late October, the Environmental Defense Fund announced it had begun a weeklong digital-ad campaign thanking Ayotte for her stance on the Obama administration rule, which is known as the Clean Power Plan.
“Senator Ayotte’s support for the Clean Power Plan demonstrates real leadership on climate change and breaks with those in her own caucus who have sided with polluters and continue attempts to block clean air protections at every turn,” the group said in rolling out the campaign.