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Keystone XL decision may loom large for red state Democrats in 2014 midterms

January 30, 2013
The Hill
Alexandra Jaffe

A handful of vulnerable Democratic senators running for reelection in red states are seeking to insulate themselves from political fallout if the Obama administration rejects the Keystone XL oilsands pipeline from Canada.

Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), joined 44 of their Republican colleagues in signing a letter last week urging Obama to expedite the pipeline's approval.

Although Democrats say the controversial pipeline may not linger as an issue at the ballot box in 2014, the senators’ full-throated support for the controversial project could shield them from GOP attacks over the economic impact if construction is denied.

All five of the Democratic senators who signed the Keystone letter face difficult reelection battles in red states that Obama lost in 2012, most by double-digit margins.

“In the end, I think it’s going to be overlooked by other issues. But it’s certainly something that they’re going to have to deal with. They all represent major energy-producing areas of the county,” said James Manley, a Democratic strategist who formerly worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“This has proven to be a political football that Republicans are going to continue to press forward.”

Supporters and opponents of the Keystone XL project are awaiting a decision from the State Department on whether to grant TransCanada Corp. a presidential permit to build the pipeline.

Obama initially rejected a permit for the pipeline last year, citing concerns it traversed the ecologically-sensitive Sandhills of Nebraska.

Last week, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R ) informed Obama and the State Department that he had approved a revised route for the pipeline that avoids the Sandhills.

Republicans say the Obama administration’s decision to deny the pipeline on its original route has cost the U.S. thousands of construction and energy jobs, and that the pipeline’s construction could bring down gas prices.

The GOP is already seeking to make political hay out ongoing delays in a Keystone XL decision.

The National Republican Congressional Committee this week targeted 39 House Democrats this week with a release that charges that Obama and the House Democrats in question "have run out of excuses" on Keystone.

"If they are serious about creating jobs, they need to stand up to their radical environmentalist friends and support the Keystone XL pipeline," said NRCC Communications Director Andrea Bozek.

Manley noted that the Democratic senators who signed the pro-pipeline letter “will be on record as being strong supporters of the proposal” — which will help diminish the impact on them come Election Day if the pipeline is denied.

If the pipeline is approved, red state Democrats can also tout their efforts to press the administration to support the project.

Baucus, a longtime Democratic leader on the pipeline push, has emphasized his the economic value of the project – even as many liberals contend Keystone XL represents a global warming nightmare.

“The Keystone Pipeline is about one simple thing: jobs’ – and Montana jobs are why Max supports Keystone,” a spokesperson for the senator said in an email.

Baucus’ office also highlighted the senator’s commitment to his constituents, emphasizing his independence from the Democratic party line — and Obama with it.

“Max represents Montana, and he makes his policy decisions based on what he hears from Montanans,” the spokesperson added.

In the 2012 election, early and vocal support of the pipeline helped red state Democrats neutralize the issue in the face of GOP attacks.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), won tough races in part because they came out in support of Keystone XL well in advance of the election.

Heitkamp, working to live up to her campaign promise to be independent from Obama on issues important to North Dakota, also signed the pro-Keystone XL letter. Tester, who is on his second term, did not.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, said support for the pipeline could help Democrats running in red states win over Republican and Independent voters. 

“A lot of Democrats also are probably predisposed to accept the jobs argument (for Keystone XL), as that's really still the top priority for most people in America,” Leiserowitz said.

Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Warner (Va.), who is up for reelection in 2014 in a purple state, also signed the pro-Keystone XL letter.

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