Supreme Court climate fight shakes up Senate races

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The Supreme Court’s halting of the Obama administration’s chief climate rule is a new spark in the race for the Senate. 

Democrats and greens, who have long hoped to make climate change a flashpoint in November’s elections, say the court’s 5-4 order putting a hold on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan gives them a chance to make a strong case to voters in their push to win back Senate control this fall.

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Republicans and energy industry strategists say they’re equally enthusiastic to use the case, which hinges on whether the Obama administration exerted too much authority over carbon emissions, to make a point about executive overreach.

The Senate is especially important for climate regulations. If the Supreme Court ultimately blocks the rule, legislation would likely be the only way to institute a plan to reduce carbon pollution.

Several Democrats running for Senate said they were angered by the court’s decision to preempt the rule this early. 

Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak, two Democrats hoping to unseat Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said they were disappointed with the ruling.

“This rule is a legally sound, pragmatic strategy to cut emissions while fostering clean energy innovation and job growth,” McGinty said in a statement.

Sestak called the action “a disappointing development that will put the health of millions of Pennsylvanians at risk and hamper our nation’s ability to combat climate change.”

Toomey opposes the rule and voted with nearly all of his Republican colleagues to overturn it.

In Florida, a state particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change, Senate candidate Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) said, “To me, this issue is personal.”

“The Supreme Court's misguided decision to block the Clean Power Plan is an attack on Florida's environment and our economy. I will not stop fighting for the millions of Floridians whose livelihood depends on reducing carbon pollution and acting on climate change.”

Most Republicans, in responding to the court's order — called a "stay" in legal terminology — have said it validates their accusations of overregulation from the Obama administration, a theme developing in Senate races around the country. 

A spokesman for Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonPollster: Clinton leads in 5 battlegrounds Juan Williams: GOP sounds the sirens over Trump Vulnerable Republican seeks edge on homeland security MORE (R-Wis.) said he “supports a balanced approach to keeping energy prices competitive and our environment clean, and getting Washington out of the way of robust private sector growth. He’ll remain skeptical of policies designed to artificially drive up the cost of power and weaken our economy.”

But some Republicans in marquee Senate races have moderate positions on the climate rule, where the stay is already becoming a contentious issue.

Vulnerable Sens. Mark KirkMark KirkSenate panel approves 0M for international climate fund Senator calls for pause in accepting Syrian refugees after Istanbul attack Overnight Healthcare: Blame game over Zika funding MORE (Ill.) and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteClean energy group backs two GOP incumbents Senator calls for pause in accepting Syrian refugees after Istanbul attack GOP Senate super-PAC reserves M in airtime MORE (N.H.) sided with Democrats in supporting the rule when lawmakers voted on a resolution against it last fall.

Kirk spokesman Kevin Artl declined to comment specifically on the court order Wednesday, instead highlighting his environmental qualifications.

“Sen. Kirk is an independent leader in the Senate on protecting the environment and his support for initiatives to clean the Great Lakes along with efforts to reduce pollution like the Clean Power Plan further demonstrate his commitment to clean air and water for generations to come,” Artl said.

His Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth called the decision “unfortunate” and said it only reinforces the need to elect her over Kirk.

She said in a statement that Kirk “talks a good game on the environment, but unfortunately votes consistently with polluters and energy corporations.”

In a statement, Ayotte said that, despite the stay order, “it does not eliminate the need to address climate change and protect New Hampshire’s environment.”

A spokesman for Ayotte’s opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, tied the stay to the senator’s opposition to “congressional efforts to pass legislation that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change,” and votes to “protect tax breaks for Big Oil.”

“Governor Hassan has been a strong supporter of the Clean Power Plan and has urged our congressional delegation to do everything in their power to support it,” spokesman Aaron Jacobs said.

Philip Wallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that depending on the race, both Democrats and Republican may feel that the high court’s decision could benefit them.

“It definitely makes it easier make the existential case for Democrats, to the extent that they want to bring up climate change as something they think is going to be a winning issue for them,” Wallach said, adding that Democrats could argue that if the rule is overturned, they’d need to get a Senate majority if there’s any chance of legislation to fight climate change.

For Republicans, the stay could boost their arguments that Obama is overreaching and making energy more expensive, Wallach said.

“I think it’s a winning issue in a regional sense for some places, the sense that they’re the ones fighting and pushing back against this EPA overreach, and are going to protect communities that have some dependence on coal,” he said.

But Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell, was doubtful that any development with the climate rule could change the fact that climate change consistently ranks low in voters’ priorities.

“This tends to relegate to a lower position on the spectrum,” he said. “In the grand scheme of a political campaign, this is probably not going to be a factor.”