By Coral Davenport
WASHINGTON — A self-described conservative North Carolina businessman has promised to spend at least $5 million through his political action committee to back five Republican congressional candidates who have supported taking action to curb climate change.
Even as his party’s presumptive presidential nominee denies the existence of global warming, the businessman, Jay Faison, and his ClearPath Action Fund will spend at least $2 million on digital media campaigns to defend Senate incumbents running in two of the tightest races in the country, Rob Portman in Ohio and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, a recognition of the senators’ support for clean energy, Mr. Faison said Wednesday. The advertisements are expected to start running this week.
ClearPath is also spending several hundred thousand dollars on digital advertising campaigns to support Representatives Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Tom Reed and Elise Stefanik of New York, all Republicans running for re-election in similarly tight races.
“What we’re trying to do is prove to the party, through these races, that clean energy wins races, to build a political safe space for the Republican Party to talk about this,” Mr. Faison said in an interview. “It is difficult for a politician to consistently act in an area with no reward. We have their back.” He added, “We’re also making that case to the Trump campaign.”
The spending comes as Republican leaders have questioned or denied the established science of human-caused climate change and attacked President Obama’s climate change policies. Donald J. Trump, the presumptive nominee, has mocked climate science and vowed to cancel the Paris Agreement, the 2015 global accord committing nearly every country on earth to taking action to fight climate change.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, calls Mr. Obama’s climate policies a “war on coal.” But some Republican members of Congress who hope to carve out careers that could outlast Mr. Trump’s have begun to quietly consider how to address climate change, which they believe resonates with a growing segment of voters, particularly young people.
Political strategists are paying attention to polls that show Americans expressing record- or near-record-high belief that global warming is happening. A March Gallup poll found that 64 percent of American adults worry “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about global warming, the highest number since 2008, and it found that a record 65 percent of Americans attribute global warming to human activity.
However, most polls asking voters to rank the importance of issues find that environmental concerns trail far behind concerns about jobs and the economy.
Still, in many campaigns, Democrats are attacking Republicans as climate deniers.
Some moderate Republicans hope to use their views on climate change to draw a contrast with Mr. Trump.
“All of them need to demonstrate a level of independence from the national party in order to survive,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, speaking of the five lawmakers backed by Mr. Faison’s group. “They’ll need to declare independence from Donald Trump.”
In 2015, Ms. Ayotte broke with her party to vote against a measure written by Mr. McConnell that would have blocked Mr. Obama’s climate change rules. She also voted for a program to establish grants to schools for climate change education, against a proposal to block the Obama administration from signing on to the Paris climate change accord, and in favor of a federal fund to respond to the threat of climate change.
Mr. Portman voted with his party on most of those measures, but also voted in favor of the fund to respond to climate threats. He has worked for years with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, on a bill to improve energy efficiency in buildings. He is a former board member of the Nature Conservancy and is a co-author of legislation to support cleanup of the Great Lakes.
The three House members backed by Mr. Faison’s group are among just 13 Republicans who have signed on to a resolution, offered by Representative Chris Gibson, Republican of New York. “The resolution was a vehicle to find out which Republicans were willing to step up and take some action,” said Steve Valk, a spokesman for Citizen’s Climate Lobby.
But while those five Republicans’ environmental records stand out from many in their party, they have voted more times against environmental regulations than in favor. The League of Conservation Voters, which tracks lawmakers’ environmental records on a scale of 1 to 100, have given lifetime scores to Ms. Ayotte of 35 percent, Mr. Portman of 20 percent, Mr. Curbelo of 23 percent, Mr. Reed of 6 percent and Ms. Stefanik of 9 percent. “To give House Republicans like Elise Stefanik, Tom Reed or Carlos Curbelo credit for acknowledging that climate change is real is a very low bar,” said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In Miami, Mr. Curbelo’s opponent, Annette Tadeo, a Democrat, has slammed his climate positions as hypocritical. “Big oil and gas lobbyists have been filling his campaign coffers with thousands of dollars in cash, in exchange for his advocacy for offshore drilling,” she said in a statement.
In Ohio, Mr. Portman is fighting to keep his seat against a former governor, Ted Strickland, who notes his support of Mr. Obama’s climate plan and slams Mr. Portman for voting against it.
In upstate New York, a local newspaper, The Post-Star, noted that Ms. Stefanik’s support for the climate change resolution was paired with votes against Mr. Obama’s climate change plan. “We were especially interested in how she could acknowledge climate change in one stand, yet vote to delay implementation of the Clean Power Plan (new standards for coal-burning power plants), especially while representing a region that was devastated by acid rain from those plants in the Midwest,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.
Some political observers have drawn comparisons between Mr. Faison and Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist and Democratic donor whose political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, has spent heavily to push candidates who champion climate change issues. Mr. Steyer emerged as the single biggest political donor of the 2014 cycle, spending $74 million to influence voters, far more than the $5 million pledged by Mr. Faison’s group. Mr. Steyer, whose group has already laid out plans to spend at least $25 million in 2016, disavowed the comparison to Mr. Faison.
“From what we can tell by the people he is supporting, he is grading Republicans on the curve,” Mr. Steyer said in an interview. “We have fairly objective standards for grading people, and none of the them come close to meeting our standards.” Mr. Steyer said his group planned to support the Democratic Senate candidates in Ohio and New Hampshire.
And while the ads run by Mr. Faison’s group note the candidates’ support of clean energy, showing lush green fields and sparkling blue skies, they never explicitly mention the term climate change. Mr. Faison acknowledges that while he supports Republicans who have supported climate change policy, it is still too politically divisive to actually use the phrase.
“Climate change is a divisive term on the Hill and it’s a divisive term among the electorate,” said Mr. Faison. “But ‘clean energy’ tells a voter you care about the environment, and deflects attacks about climate change.”