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The message of the advertisement that’s been running on New Mexico television in recent weeks is anything but subtle. As children quench their thirst on a black liquid emanating from school water fountains, a narrator identifies Heather Wilson as the culprit.
“As Big Oil was polluting hundreds of groundwater sites, Wilson was collecting hundreds of thousands of their cash, then voting to let the polluters off the hook,” the Sierra Club’s spot declares. It’s part of a multimillion-dollar campaign by environmentalists against the former Republican Congresswoman from Albuquerque, who is in a too-close-to-call race for the state’s open Senate seat.
According to the Wilson campaign, the ad highlights the “environmental extremist” agenda shared by her opponent, Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, who worked for several green groups (the Sierra Club among them) and for a state agency assigned to restore land contaminated by hazardous materials before his election to the House four years ago. Wilson has singled out Heinrich’s opposition to constructing the Keystone XL oil pipeline and his support for creating a cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions as positions out of step with the prevailing view in New Mexico, where energy production — crude oil, natural gas, wind, solar and nuclear — is a lifeblood of the economy. And reinforcing that message are the deep pockets of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative American Crossroads, both of which are spending heavily on her behalf.
The back and forth illustrates the high stakes for the race to replace Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who’s retiring after five terms. (A Heinrich victory would be a bulwark against the Republican drive to take control of the Senate; a Wilson win would put her party a big step closer to that goal.) But the sharply contrasting messages also showcase familiar political themes surrounding energy — talking points that will be amplified across the nation via the airwaves, Internet and newspapers as the clock ticks closer to Nov. 6.
This year, both sides are laying claim to supporting an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. Democrats running for the House and Senate point to record-high oil and gas production levels as proof of their support for responsible production of fossil fuels. Rounding out their talking points is an emphasis on clean energy, which benefited from tens of billions of dollars in stimulus money — an investment Democrats maintain will reap economic, environmental and national security dividends.
Republican candidates in turn are promising to replace what they deride as President Barack Obama’s green energy socialism with an economic recovery fueled by cheap American fossil fuels. They promise that if they are put in charge on both sides of the Capitol (and preferably the White House, too) vast domestic reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will be liberated when the regulatory shackles of the current administration are finally cast off. It’s a fairly uniform message for the GOP, whose ever-thinning ranks of moderates have much of the party uniformly aligned with a pro-fossil fuel, free-market energy message.
By contrast, energy becomes a more complicated and nuanced discussion for Democrats, who face regional economic and political challenges on energy that seem to increase with distance from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
That’s prompted a careful tiptoe through energy debates for moderate Democrats such as Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who’s a heavy but not prohibitive favorite to win a second term. At times he has taken seemingly incongruous energy positions during his first term. For example, he supported both the Keystone XL pipeline and the cap-and-trade legislation. Casey said he’s carefully weighed the environmental and economic merits of his energy policy votes, one by one, in an effort to decide what’s best for his state. “It’s not easy, but I think I’ve struck the right balance,” he said. (His Republican opponent is Tom Smith, who became a millionaire as the owner of a coal-mining business, which he sold two years ago.)
Blanketing the Airwaves
Swing-state voters have already experienced a healthy dose of ads critical of Obama’s energy policies. Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, has spent an estimated $8 million since last year on ads about Solyndra, the California solar panel maker that filed for bankruptcy in September after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department.
Fueled by a lengthy investigation by House Republicans, Solyndra has become the poster child of what critics called Obama’s failed experiment with clean energy economics. The firm also had a cameo in a $4 million ad campaign launched in April by the American Energy Alliance, which accused the Obama administration of plotting to raise gasoline prices to $9 a gallon.
While the campaign was launched as prices at the pump were creeping upward to the highest levels in years, AEA spokesman Benjamin Cole said the group’s theme of energy affordability continues to resonate with voters, even as oil prices have stabilized in the subsequent months. “The fact is, gas is twice what it was in 2009 when President Obama took office,” he said. “The fact is, the sources he’s invested in are the most expensive.”
As a nonprofit issue advocacy group, the AEA is not supposed to support individual candidates or political parties but exists to spread a message that Cole summarizes as “energy makes your life better, and the cheaper energy is the better.” The spokesman said his group has no interest in taking out-front sides in the partisan fray because “Republicans have stupid ideas on energy, and Democrats have stupid ideas on energy.”
Nonetheless, in the coming days, the AEA will launch a five-week bus tour through 18 states, including some battlegrounds that could well decide who controls Congress and the White House after November. There will be stops in New Mexico, Montana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. (All the states on that list have competitive Senate races as well as 15 hot House races.) The tour, intended to highlight the economic importance of refined petroleum products, will roughly trace the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,700-mile project, which would carry petroleum produced from the abundant oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries, has been a headache for Democrats since major environmental groups last year decided to make it a litmus test for their support of Obama’s re-election bid.
The support for Keystone by vulnerable Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) has neutralized the political fallout from Obama’s refusal to expedite the project. As a reminder to voters, earlier this month she urged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to fast-track the review of a proposed new route for the pipeline through an environmentally sensitive part of Nebraska.
McCaskill’s GOP opponent will be decided in a three-way primary next week. Her campaign website offers a nuanced approach to reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, such as by voting to end tax breaks for the more profitable oil companies and supporting clean energy tax breaks, which put her in the party mainstream. But she also goes against the Democratic grain by opposing the cap-and-trade plan for controlling global warming and fighting new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on the coal-fired power plants that power much of her state. (At the same time, though, she voted in June to allow landmark restrictions on mercury emissions from utilities to take effect, earning criticism from business groups but praise from environmentalists — a constituency with whom she has sometimes had a chilly relationship.)
While outfunded by business interests, environmentalists haven’t shied from pushing their message in battleground states. In April, the League of Conservation Voters teamed up with the Priorities USA Action super PAC to spend $1 million for TV time in two presidential swing states, Colorado and Nevada, to brand presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney as Big Oil’s “$200 million man.”
In addition to New Mexico, environmentalists so far have spent most heavily in a handful of other races that could decide Senate control. They are all “places where the contrast between the candidates on energy and the environment are stark,” said Navin Nayak, the senior vice president for campaigns at the LCV.
His group started early in its effort to deny Republican Sen. Scott Brown election to a full term in Massachusetts by launching a
$2 million ad buy last fall highlighting his zero score on the LCV annual environmental vote scorecard. Nayak said polling showed Brown’s favorability dropped by 8 points after the ads ran. Soon thereafter, Brown and his Democratic challenger, Harvard University professor Elizabeth Warren, reached an unprecedented agreement to foreswear independent expenditure help from super PACs and other third-party advocacy groups.
Other Democratic Senate candidates who have benefited from the LCV’s political efforts so far this campaign include Heinrich, Sen. Jon Tester, who’s in a tossup race for a second term in Montana against GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg, and Tim Kaine, a former governor who is running neck and neck for Virginia’s open Senate seat against its previous occupant, Republican George Allen.
The group is also watching close Senate races in three other states: Ohio, where Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, seeking a second term against GOP state Treasurer Josh Mandel, has seen millions of dollars in ads run by outside groups criticizing his votes on EPA regulations and other energy issues; Nevada, where Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is challenging appointed Republican Sen. Dean Heller; and Arizona, where former Surgeon General Richard Carmona is the open-seat candidate for the Democrats and the Republicans will decide next month between Rep. Jeff Flake and real estate investor Wil Cardon.
Democrats and environmentalists have sought to wield energy policy as a weapon against GOP lawmakers in only a relatively small number of top-flight House contests so far. The Sierra Club this month launched ads pressuring three House GOP freshmen to support an extension of a key wind production tax credit; two of them, Reps. Frank Guinta (N.H.) and Joe Heck (Nev.), are in tight re-election fights. (The third, Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, has a lock on a second term.) And last week the LCV announced a $1.5 million campaign against five “climate change denier” Republicans in the House, or those who have questioned the link between humans and global warming. Initially, though, it named only two of the targets: endangered freshman Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.) and Dan Benishek (Mich.).
And in Montana, the LCV has teamed up with hunters and anglers on a $385,000 ad campaign that tags as “creepy” a House-passed provision, pushed by Rehberg, that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to install surveillance equipment on public lands in the state.
But Democrats overall are expecting to bear the brunt of such attack ads in the coming weeks. “I think in this kind of election they’ll try everything,” Casey said.