The Greening of Kelly Ayotte

The vulnerable Republican supports President Obama’s big climate rule. Is that enough to ward off green groups’ attacks?

Sen. Kelly Ayotte smiles before announcing her plans to seek a second term in Manchester, New Hampshire on June 30.  (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

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.