Can Lindsey Graham help improve the GOP’s image on the environment?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham celebrated his 64th birthday Tuesday by preparing to launch a new political coalition he said will woo young voters to the GOP.

The South Carolina Republican on Wednesday morning joined several GOP colleagues from both chambers to unveil the “Roosevelt Conservation Caucus.” Named for one of the Republican Party’s most famous environmentalists, President Teddy Roosevelt, the group’s purpose will be to develop an environmental platform that can compete with that of the Democrats, whose party has claimed ownership of environmental policy proposals for years.

“From a Republican point of view, we need to up our game,” Graham told The State on Tuesday. “This is an issue we should be playing at. Young people really care about it. I care about it.”

The two parties have historically differed in their approaches to protecting the environment. Democrats have typically favored more government regulations on carbon emissions and use of natural resources, for instance, while Republicans worry about creating too many regulatory burdens for American businesses and prefer to create incentives for environmental innovation instead.

Democrats and Republicans also have found themselves at odds over the concept of climate change and whether human activities have contributed to the phenomenon of global warming. Democrats embrace the theory of climate change as a man-made problem, while many Republicans are either reluctant to acknowledge it or disagree with the science behind it.

Graham said that while Republicans have “sharp, clear ideas about taxes and everything else, we need to come up with a good environmental agenda to show the public at large that the party cares.”

From a political optics perspective, the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus could emerge as pragmatic conservatives’ answer to the liberals’ Green New Deal — a controversial, far-reaching environmental policy blueprint championed by self-described Democratic socialist U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

“I think we’ll come up with some pretty good packages (of legislation), hopefully bipartisan,” Graham said. “I’d like to see a different proposal than the Green New Deal. ... I don’t think you’re healing the environment by destroying the economy.”

But changing deeply ingrained public opinion on which party cares most about the environment — and finding common ground between the two parties to actually advance legislation — will require Graham and others to thread a very delicate needle.

‘Climate change is real’

Graham is one of relatively few Republicans willing to say openly that he believes “climate change is real.”

He was one of just three U.S. Senate Republicans in 2017 to uphold an Obama-era rule curbing methane emissions. He spent political capital to broker a compromise on sweeping climate change legislation in 2009 and 2010 that ultimately floundered.

Graham also comes from a state where many residents link increased intensity of hurricanes and flooding to shifting weather trends, fostering environmentalist streaks in its Republican elected officials: Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis now runs a group called “RepublicEn” that encourages Republicans to acknowledge climate change, ex-U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford received honors from national environmental groups as a member of Congress and Gov. Henry McMaster has helped lead the charge against oil and gas drilling off the South Carolina coast.

Read Next

Yet in a sign of just how divided the two parties are on climate policy, Graham has only a 12% lifetime rating on the League for Conservation Voters legislative scorecard, which tracks how lawmakers vote on environmental issues.

John Tynan, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, told The State he wasn’t entirely surprised Graham’s lifetime score with the influential national environmental group was low “as environment and conservation issues become more partisan in D.C.”

The highest rating Graham has ever received from the League for Conservation Voters, going back to 1995, was a 31% score in 2013.

“Sen. Graham has still consistently been among the top Republicans in the Senate on these issues,” Tynan said, adding, “Unfortunately, you can be a top Republican on these issues if you are in the 20 or 30% range.”

Meanwhile, from a preliminary list of priorities the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus wants to tackle — including “ensuring safe drinking water,” “fixing our national parks” and “reducing ocean plastic pollution” — only one bullet point mentions climate change: “Doubling down on innovation by investing in basic research and development of cleaner, more efficient technologies, including nuclear energy, storage, and carbon capture to address climate change.”

The omission of the politically weighty phrase also was apparent during President Donald Trump’s speech on Monday where he sought to highlight his administration’s strong environmental record ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, as critics pointed to his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord as among the clearest signs his record is weak.

At the press conference to launch the caucus on Wednesday, Graham, an ally of the president, said, “I would encourage the president to look long and hard at the science (of climate change) and find the solution.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.