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Republican Charlie Baker’s win in liberal Massachusetts offers path forward on climate change

By addressing climate change, Charlie Baker bolstered his image as a pragmatic problem solver. Charlie Baker 2014 campaign

On an urgent mission to shift the political debate over climate change, environmental groups spent an unprecedented $85 million in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, focusing their efforts on a handful of contested Senate seats.

Following the failure in 2010 to pass a national climate bill, environmentalists believed that they were trumped by a conservative base who were angrier and louder than their own. Led by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, in the years to come they are determined to avoid a similar mistake, investing in the same hard knuckle electoral strategies that conservatives have deployed so successfully against them.

Climate change poses a serious threat to the economy, public health, and children, argue Steyer and his allies, and if a GOP candidate doesn’t believe in climate change, they can’t be trusted. Looking ahead to 2016, there are signs that this narrative is making it increasingly difficult for national GOP leaders to dismiss climate science or to duck policy questions.

“The general dialogue has been, ‘We have to do something about this,’” a Republican adviser told The New York Times. “We have to be less head-in-the-sand and acknowledge we are losing public opinion on this issue.”

Yet under the radar of national headlines, as the projected winner of the razor thin Massachusetts Governor’s race, Republican Charlie Baker’s platform on climate change reflected not only a pragmatic approach to meaningfully addressing the issue, but also a strategy that can help Republicans with their flock of dodos image problem.

To be sure, Baker’s climate strategy was not a decisive factor in the election. Like elsewhere in the country, Massachusetts voters’ concerns were dominated by the economy and worries about the future. Baker also benefited from lower turn out than in a presidential year and a longstanding predilection among Massachusetts voters to elect Republican governors like Mitt Romney or William Weld who balance Democratic super-majorities in the state legislature.

But Baker’s bold positioning on climate change allowed him to speak to voters’ economic concerns, bolstered his brand as a pragmatic former health care executive, balanced his otherwise fiscally conservative outlook on taxes and spending, and eliminated a potential vulnerability that otherwise would have likely hurt him with moderate voters.

A GOP path to progress?

Massachusetts boasts one of the most left-leaning electorates in the country, with more than a third of voters statewide identifying as liberal. Inside the Boston beltway region, where Baker hoped to boost his support following his failed 2010 electoral bid, 50 percent of voters identify as liberal.

During his two terms in office, outgoing Democratic governor Deval Patrick has led a push to promote solar power and energy efficiency. He has also called for ending reliance in the state on coal power, shifting to renewables, hydroelectricity and natural gas.

Patrick’s push not only played to the environmental base of his party, but also to the majority of voters statewide who believe that government should do more to curtail climate change, even if it harms economic growth.

Earlier this year, Patrick announced $50 million in funding to address threats posed by climate change. Among the coastal areas most at risk is Boston’s North Shore, a region that Baker calls home and that is among his strongest donor bases.

In response to these dynamics, Baker surprised environmentalists during the 2014 race by proposing climate change measures that were equivalent in focus to those of his Democratic opponent Martha Coakley.

Baker committed to cutting state carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 and to continued participation in the Northeast states’ emissions trading initiative. He also supported climate resilience planning, modernizing the electrical grid, and tax credits to promote the clean energy and efficiency sectors.

The years-long controversy over the Cape Wind project was a “done deal,” and should move ahead, he said. The Baker campaign video on job creation led with images of commuter rail trains and solar panels.

Like Coakley, to supplant reliance on coal, Baker pledged a “balanced approach that includes natural gas, wind, solar and hydroelectric generation,” but stopped short of directly supporting plans to build a controversial new gas pipeline that would cross the state.

Baker, however, strongly criticized his opponent for not doing enough in her role as state Attorney General to prevent a major spike in natural gas prices. In contrast to Coakley, he supported the extension of the Pilgram nuclear power plant’s operating license.

For environmentalists, Baker’s climate and energy platform represented a suspicious reversal from his positioning during the 2010 election race. Like Mitt Romney, he is willing to say anything to get elected, went the Democratic talking points. “I think Charlie has an authenticity problem,” Governor Patrick told the Boston Globe.

More substantively, Baker’s signature campaign pledge was to lower taxes and government spending, raising doubts about how the state would be able to pay for climate resilience measures, public transportation expansion, and clean energy innovations.

He similarly opposed automatically indexing for inflation the state’s gas tax, which would help pay for infrastructure improvements. In contrast to Coakley, Baker’s climate proposals also offered few specifics.

Yet, the pragmatic platform on climate change that Baker staked out is a welcome sign during a period of intense antagonism and disagreement over the issue. Baker offers an important example for other GOP candidates to emulate and his advocacy for action on climate change provides hope for progress on our tough, new planet.

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