Climate change emerges as sleeper issue in Senate races

Climate change has become a sleeper issue in a number of Senate races as Democrats attempt to paint their opponents as extreme, based on their views on the issue.

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It’s a largely straightforward peg for an attack that some Democrats hope will appeal to centrist voters that may be swayed if they see the Republican candidate as part of the party’s extreme.

In the Maine and Nebraska Senate races, the independent and Democratic candidates, respectively, have focused in on their opponents’ position, that man has little to no role in climate change, to argue that they are too far outside of the mainstream for voters in their states.

In Maine, independent Senate candidate Angus King recently launched an ad featuring him telling the camera that Republican opponent “Charlie [Summers] … doubts climate change science, favors taxpayer subsidies for big oil, and thinks Washington isn't broken.”

Summers said at one of the candidates’ debates, which was focused solely on energy and the environment, that he doesn’t believe that climate change is caused primarily by humans, and cited other factors -- like volcanic eruptions -- that he believes affect the environment. It’s a position that King spokeswoman Crystal Canney said offered a contrast between the two candidates, and one that she believes Maine voters -- who live in a state with a strong green energy sector and leans Democratic -- will consider in November.

“I think when someone makes a statement that climate change is caused by volcanoes, I think you have to alert the public,” to what they believe, she said.

Summers’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In Nebraska, Democrat Bob Kerrey focused in on Republican Deb Fischer’s doubts that humans play a role in climate change during a debate to question her ability to solve Nebraska’s problems. The state has, in recent months, been hit by severe droughts that have impacted much of the agricultural sector.

“I do not think you can solve any problem unless you begin by saying there's a problem,” he said during the debate.

Kerrey’s lagged Fischer by double digits in most recent polls, and faces an uphill battle in a state that has grown increasingly conservative over the years. But he did once serve as the state’s senator, and Nebraskans have historically been known for splitting the ticket to vote for more moderate lawmakers, so this is one issue where Kerrey believes he can create a useful contrast between himself and Fischer.

Kerrey spokesman Chris Triebsch added that Fischer’s position seems to be a part of a larger pattern on Fischer’s part to “bury her head” on facts.

“I think it speaks, in a larger context, to how she doesn't look at the facts on a number of issues, and lets the facts just hang out there and not address them,” he said.

But Fischer’s spokesman Daniel Keylin said that the candidate is focused less on the why of climate change and more on improving the economy.

“Senator Fischer’s top priority is turning our economy around and creating jobs, not finding ways to tax the middle-class and increase energy prices,” he said.

Both Canney and Triebsch agreed that the focus on the climate change issue was a way to frame the Republican as extreme.

And that’s the effort Democrat Elizabeth Warren has launched in Massachusetts, albeit in a slightly more roundabout way. She’s tied Sen. Scott Brown’s re-election to Republican control of the Senate and argued that, if Republicans controlled the Senate, climate-change denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) would chair the Environment and Public Works Committee and oversee the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s a strong argument in a state as blue as Massachusetts, and if Warren can successfully argue that Brown’s win would ensure far-right Republicans would gain control of the Senate, she could topple Brown’s campaign.

And in a race as close as that in Massachusetts, climate change could be a niche issue that could drive voters to the polls in favor of one candidate or the other.

Stanford professor of political science Jon Krosnick, who authored a study on the effects of climate change communication on races nationwide, said that there are subsets of voters who tend to focus in on one issue that could be compelled to turn out if candidates appeal to them on climate change.

“They can actually be activated to vote by hearing the Democrat take a green position,” he said. “[Candidates] may actually enhance turnout as well as attract voters over to their side by discussing climate change.”

He added that the current political climate, where neither candidate is a clear winner on significant issues like the economy and jobs, is ripe for issue voters to be swayed on a topic like climate change.

But the presidential race is one in which the candidates have largely stayed silent on climate change -- Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama have barely made mention of the environment, only commenting on environmental policy in terms of energy policy at stops in swing states where issues like the Keystone Pipeline resonate.

Though environmental activists have expressed chagrin over the omission, the presidential race, played out over a much larger and more diverse spectrum, is unlikely to see much discussion of the issue before November.