Energy Policy: Regional Wild Card in the Midterms?

Energy Policy: Regional Wild Card in the Midterms?

By Carl M. Cannon - September 24, 2014

Last May, an energy conservation bill appeared to be coming to the Senate floor for a vote. Passage seemed a foregone conclusion, but that's a risky assumption on Capitol Hill these days, especially during an election year.

Despite its grandiose name, The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act was a modest collection of sensible ideas that included tax incentives and funding designed to encourage homeowners, landlords, and those who manage commercial buildings to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. Its sponsors claimed it would generate billions of dollars in energy savings, and spur thousands of new jobs — assertions no one really disputed.

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen cited the bill as one of her defining achievements in the upper chamber. “It would advance the ball on the environment and climate change … and save consumers lots of money,” Shaheen said. “One of my areas of focus has been on the economy … and one of the things we know is the energy sector is a place where we can create jobs.”

Then midterm election-year politics interceded. Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, Shaheen’s Republican general election opponent, privately lobbied Republican Senate leaders to bottle up the bill. To incensed Democrats, Brown’s calculation seemed obvious — and cynical: He didn’t want Shaheen to have a legislative success story to tout in her re-election narrative.

Brown’s own explanation for his opposition was that Senate Democrats were hiding behind passage of the energy efficiency bill as a way of evading a vote on the proposed Keystone pipeline and Obama administration actions curbing coal-fired power plants. As a countermove, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised an up-or-down vote on Keystone, but only after the energy efficiency bill passed.

“First, he was here two years and he seems still not to understand the legislative process,” New York Democrat Chuck Schumer told reporters. “By killing the Shaheen bill, he also killed a vote on the pipeline.”

But as they thought about it, all but two Republican senators sided with Scott Brown. For one thing, they didn’t necessarily trust Reid to keep his word regarding the Keystone gambit. And in any event, the possibility exists that the Shaheen-Brown race might determine whether the Senate stays in Democratic hands, or goes Republican.

Everything else is partisan these days, so why not energy policy?

According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, eight Senate races are tossups in a year in which six net GOP pickups will turn the chamber Republican. Some 13 governorships are too close to call, along with 17 House seats — not to mention President Obama’s second-term legacy. With stakes like that, every policy issue is massaged and manipulated for partisan advantage — and energy and conservation are pivot points in nearly every battleground state.

Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein calls this development the “complete triumph” of the permanent campaign. “There used to be a real separation of campaigning and governing,” Ornstein told CBS News earlier this year. “The campaigns are zero-sum processes, the governing is an additive process.”

At the beginning of this electoral season, National Journal highlighted eight statewide races that might hinge on energy and environmental policy. They were the Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky — and the Senate and gubernatorial races in Louisiana.  As the campaign has played out, energy has become a factor in other state races, too, including New Hampshire, North Carolina, Michigan, and West Virginia.

In some ways, today’s nationalized political campaigns undercut legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous adage about all politics being local. But when it comes to energy policy, perhaps a better way to look at it is that all politics is regional.

In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich has broken with Harry Reid and the Obama administration over the Keystone pipeline and other energy exploration projects. To illustrate his independence from his fellow Democrats, Begich recently starred in a television ad showing himself riding a snowmobile across a frozen landscape as if on a quest for more places to drill.

In response, Republican challenger Dan Sullivan had offered both a time-worn national rejoinder and a cheeky, Alaska-centric riposte. The local zinger was that the actual rider on Begich’s snow machine appeared to be a stunt double. Sullivan also noted, as other red state Republicans have done, that it’s easy to say you don’t agree with the national Democratic Party on an issue or two, but that Begich’s agenda includes backing a Senate leader who won’t allow a vote on Keystone. “Begich’s first vote is going to be for Harry Reid,” Sullivan tells reporters.

A similar dynamic is taking place in other energy-rich states with Democratic incumbents. In Colorado, where hydraulic fracturing is an essential component of the state’s oil and gas industry — but deeply unpopular in liberal havens such as Boulder — Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper narrowly avoided an attempt by his party’s progressive wing to place an anti-fracking ban on the November ballot. This measure might have doomed Hickenlooper’s re-election chances, along with those of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

Just to be on the safe side, Udall avoided a party fundraiser in Denver on his behalf where the president was the featured speaker, which one doesn’t see every day. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana went even further. One of her opening salvos on television was a political ad denouncing the Obama policies on oil and gas production as “simply wrong.”

In Arkansas, two new coal-powered electricity-producing plants, Plum Point and Turk, were hailed as next-generation “clean coal” facilities when they were built in recent years. But they aren’t clean enough, according to the Obama administration EPA regulations proposed this summer, which has created pressure on Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

Pryor certainly doesn’t back the administration in this area. “Arkansas is being punished for the doing the right thing here,” he has said. But it’s his party pushing the agenda, which GOP Rep. Tom Cotton hasn’t been shy about reminding Arkansas’ voters.

Not every close race favors Republicans’ energy policies, however, just as not all the incumbent senators bucking their party’s leadership are afraid to be associated with environmental protection. Back in the springtime, when the GOP leadership derailed Jeanne Shaheen’s energy conservation bill, two Republican senators voted with the Democrats in opposing the Scott Brown-inspired filibuster against it. They were Susan Collins of Maine and Shaheen’s New Hampshire colleague, Kelly Ayotte. Both Republican women hail from New England, where energy consumption is high and energy production is low. They were voting with their region.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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