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Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe stood on the Senate floor last year to declare 2009 “the year of the skeptic.” Turns out he jumped the gun. This year, a host of Republican Senate hopefuls are trumpeting their rejection of climate science on the campaign trail.

Christine O’Donnell became the latest to enter the spotlight last week when she rode tea party support to knock off Rep. Mike Castle — one of eight House Republicans who voted for cap-and-trade climate legislation last summer — in Delaware’s open-seat GOP Senate primary.

She joins Nevada’s Sharron Angle — who has dismissed man-made global warming as a “mantra of the left” — Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson — who blames warming on “sun spots” — Florida’s Marco Rubio, Alaska’s Joe Miller and Colorado’s Ken Buck as tea party-backed Republican Senate candidates who reject the science connecting human greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.

But the tea partiers are not alone. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and challenger to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), says Americans need to “have the courage to examine the science of climate change.” And at a debate last month in New Hampshire, all six Republicans seeking their party’s nomination to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) expressed their skepticism, including former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, the eventual nominee.

As skeptics knock on the Senate door, many GOP climate moderates are headed out. Along with Gregg, Republican Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and George LeMieux (Fla.) are retiring at the end of this session. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — a Republican who acknowledges global warming but is leading the charge to block U.S. EPA from regulating greenhouse gases — lost her party’s nomination last month and will likely be gone next year.

The swelling rank of skeptics running for office stems from a public backlash against liberals’ global warming “alarmism,” said Inhofe spokesman Matt Dempsey. Democrats’ attempts to pass greenhouse gas limits and the commercial success of Al Gore’s climate science movie “An Inconvenient Truth” brought more scrutiny to the issue, Dempsey said.

And then there was “Climategate,” the publication last November of a series of private e-mails between British climate scientists that skeptics say exposed holes in climate science and a conspiracy to hide them. The e-mails “vindicated Inhofe and everything he’s been saying for the past seven years,” Dempsey said. “That’s why the bottom fell out on the global warming movement.”

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