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Climate takes center stage in Curtis’ Senate campaign

Rep. John Curtis has received support from young conservatives and criticism from Republican opponents as he makes a run for Mitt Romney’s Senate seat

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Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, talks to constituents at Holladay City Hall in Holladay on Nov. 21, 2023.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, talks to constituents at Holladay City Hall in Holladay on Nov. 21, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rep. John Curtis’ efforts to mainstream climate-conscious energy policy among conservatives has garnered renewed attention since announcing his bid to replace outgoing Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.

Over his three terms in the U.S. House, Curtis has been an outspoken voice advocating for an “affordable, reliable and clean” energy transition that makes room for fossil fuels and prioritizes innovation in nuclear energy. His campaign to “reverse the narrative” that conservatives don’t care about the environment has earned Curtis plaudits from young conservatives. But it has also been the focus of criticism from House colleagues and other Republican candidates running for Romney’s seat.

In his newly-minted Senate campaign, Curtis recently received the endorsement of ACC Action, a sister organization to the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit aimed at mobilizing young conservatives around commonsense, small government solutions on climate and energy policy.

The organization’s CEO, Danielle Butcher Franz, explained that the nonprofit founded in 2017, the same year Curtis was first elected, would not be where it is today without Utah’s 3rd District congressman.

“I think that Curtis has really set the standard for the way that conservatives can be expected to engage on energy and the environment and climate,” Franz said in an interview with the Deseret News.

Franz said the organization of 40,000 members wanted to thank Curtis for “reigniting conservative conservation” and is doing so through $10,000 in Facebook advertisements running from Jan. 5 to Jan. 17.

“Rep. Curtis brought a new generation to the conservative movement by advocating for real solutions to an issue we care about,” reads one variation of the ad.

At the group’s 2023 summit in Salt Lake City, the American Conservation Coalition gave Curtis the “Eco Right” award in recognition of his success increasing “right-of-center engagement on this issue.”

In addition to serving as vice chairman of the Energy, Climate, and Grid Security and Federal Lands subcommittees, Curtis chairs the Conservative Climate Caucus, which he founded in 2021. The caucus is now the fourth largest in the House, Franz said, with over 80 members, including Republican Reps. Blake Moore of Utah’s 1st District and Burgess Owens of Utah’s 4th.

“The importance of the Conservative Climate Caucus really can’t be overstated,” Franz said. “It’s done immense work to build a bench of right-of-center leaders in this space, which we previously didn’t have. And so I think that that’s a crowning achievement.”

When Curtis was asked by the Deseret News what he considers wins in the arena of conservative environmentalism,he pointed to the Emery County Public Land Management Act he introduced along with former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, which established the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area and Jurassic National Monument and secured 100,000 acres of school trust land in Utah.

Curtis has also said he increased the Republican representation at the annual United Nations climate conference and is working on legislation that would take a closer look at how U.S. greenhouse gas emissions compare to those of other countries.

Do conservatives agree with John Curtis on climate?

But Curtis’ Republican primary opponents are wagering this emphasis will do Curtis more harm than good among Utah voters.

“His main issue right now is climate change,” Senate candidate Brent Hatch told the Deseret News. “Climate change policy, it regulates us more, it hurts the economy, and the real issues that we’ve got to address right now are this debt and our border.”

This talking point is likely to be parroted by other Senate hopefuls, as well, Mike McKenna, a former White House energy adviser under Trump, told Politco.

“I just don’t see him surviving a contest in which he is going to talk about his goal — which is pulling the Republicans to the left on climate,” he said.

However, Curtis criticizes the left on environmental issues, saying they’re “demoniz(ing) fossil fuels” and “killing our economy” with a destructive climate agenda.

While Curtis knows better than most how discussions of climate change and energy transition can be met with skepticism from some conservatives, he believes the more his constituents learn about what he’s doing, the more they agree with him.

“If they just hear that John’s the climate guy, then they may worry,” Curtis told the Deseret News in December. “As they understand that I’m offering solutions for conservatives, that don’t ask them to give up their conservative values, I find great support.”

Just how much support Republicans will find on topics of climate and conservation was the subject of an exchange between Curtis and fellow GOP lawmakers during a closed-door House Republican Policy committee meeting, as the Washington Examiner reported Thursday.

“You can push back on the science, and you can be right. But it’s not working,” Curtis reportedly told Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. “This is the table where energy policy decisions are being made. Republicans are not at the table because we just don’t engage in the right way.”

In response, McClintock said Republicans win on the climate issue as people feel the impact of Democratic policies, and called Curtis’ strategy “absolutely self-defeating.”

Curtis left the meeting early, telling a reporter with the Washington Examiner it was because he had a scheduled call.

“It was not my crowd,” Curtis said, adding that was the first time he had experienced such a clash. “To me, it was nothing personal.” 

“I think it’s great that more Republicans are engaging in the energy space,” Curtis said in a statement to the Deseret News. “We all think about this differently depending on the landscape of and resources in our districts. I was surprised to see my conversation with another representative characterized as a heated argument. I’ve spent a lot of time getting conservative ideas out there in this space and I’m grateful others are willing to listen to those.”

According to a CNN poll conducted in November, 73% of U.S. adults, including 50% of those who identify as Republican, agree the U.S. government should design policies to reduce emissions by half over the next several years.

Curtis worries that in today’s partisan environment, his views on climate and energy policy might be distorted for political point-scoring. But he said he remains convinced his belief that the best environmental policy “is the same policy that is also best for national security, energy independence, agriculture, and our economy” is a message that can win in the marketplace of ideas as well as the ballot box.