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July 12, 2014

Corbett's climate stance draws fire, pulls money to governor’s race

HARRISBURG — By John Finnerty

CNHI State Reporter

HARRISBURG - When new clean air rules came out in June targeting emissions at coal power plants, the Corbett campaign tried to link Democrat Tom Wolf to the Obama Administration policies. That kind of politicizing of energy policy might come back to haunt the governor in the fall.

A billionaire environmentalist from California intends to use a political action committee to spend $100 million targeting seven climate-change deniers – Corbett, two other governors and four candidates for U.S. Senate.

“Corbett and his administration deny basic science. Gov. Corbett says climate change is still ‘a subject of debate’ and his administration’s top environmental appointee says he hasn’t ‘read any scientific studies that would lead him to conclude there are adverse impacts’ from climate change,” said Suzanne Henkels, a spokeswoman for NextGen Climate, the political action committee created by former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

Experts said there is little evidence that climate change is an issue that will resonate strongly with voters.

But that doesn’t mean that the attacks couldn’t damage Corbett’s re-election bid.

“I believe that young people are probably more sensitive and understanding of climate-related issues, but I would be hesitant to say that climate issues will make a difference in an election for governor,” said Mary Jane Kuffner-Hirt, a political science professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Even young voters are more focused on things like the cost of higher education and “the availability of jobs that match the qualifications of those who persist and graduate from college,” she said.

The Corbett campaign is trying to sell the idea that the governor’s policies have translated into an improved economy.

Campaign spokesman Chris Pack pointed to the latest jobs number report showing that the state unemployment rate of 5.8 percent is the lowest it’s been since 2008. That argument has strong support from chamber groups and the drilling industry. A “pro-gas jobs” rally held at the Capitol in May attracted 2,500 people.

But polls show most Pennsylvanians believe the state should levy an extraction tax on the drilling industry, according to Chris Borick, a political science professor and director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. And most people think that local governments should have more control over regulating the energy industry, he said.

Corbett could be susceptible to criticism that he is too closely aligned with the energy industry if critics go after him for being out of step on those types of issues, Borick said.

Last week, Corbett’s campaign launched its first ads since the primary. Days later, the NextGen Climate committee began airing ads criticizing the governor for accepting energy industry donations while refusing to detail how closely the administration communicates with gas drilling companies while crafting policy.

It was the opening salvo in what could be a protracted attack.

Steyer told Politico that he intends to throw as much as $50 million of his own money into the campaigns to unseat Corbett, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Senate candidates in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan.

Steyer spent $8 million to help Terry McAuliffe win the race for governor in Virginia.

Henkels declined to explain how the political action committee will spend its money.

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