Last Friday the White House released a snippet of news announcing yet another delay to study the impacts of the Keystone Pipeline. Numerous studies conducted by the EPA and the State Department have confirmed the pipeline would not have a significant environmental impact. The Oil and Gas Commission has found it would provide thousands of permanent, high paying jobs to build and maintain.
The reasons for the delay are pretty thin. The State Department says it needs more time to review the project due to litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court over the proposed route of the pipeline in that state. The announcement has drawn bipartisan opposition and for good reason. But some have more reason than others.
Many red-state Democrats this cycle are running in energy rich states. Two open Senate seats Democrats are defending are particularly energy rich-South Dakota and West Virginia. This move puts them even more out of reach for the party. For Democratic Senators like Mary Landrieu (LA) the move is particularly vexing.
Landrieu has won reelection in the past partly due to her strong ties with the oil and gas industry. The only Democratic President in office during her time, Clinton, was also deferential to their concerns. But Obama has particularly attacked the oil and gas industry and put Landrieu in an awkward position. Landrieu has pledged to use her chairmanship to push for the pipeline but so far all efforts, Republican and Democratic alike, have been for naught.
Landrieu is not the only red state Democrat Keystone will cause problems for. Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Kay Hagan in North Carolina are also susceptible to fallout from this decision. North Carolina and Arkansas are not nearly as dependent on energy production as Louisiana but they boast electorates supportive of energy production. In mid-February the Consumer Energy Alliance conducted a survey on the importance of energy policy in 2014 and to gauge support for the Keystone pipeline in four swing states (CO, NC, AR and LA). In all four states, over 75% of the public viewed energy policy as important in their vote. Support for Keystone never dipped below 66% (CO) and Arkansas and North Carolina favor its construction with 70% and 67% respectively.
The latest White House decision must also be weighed against the other unpopular laws and decisions the White House is currently defending. Despite touting enrollment numbers of over 8 million for Obamacare the lack of data leaves many voters in right leaning states wary of buying the White House line. The White House’s focus on voting rights, equal pay and civil rights also rings hollow to many red state voters. Instead of focusing on the economy the administration seems more focused on increasing base turnout.
The bipartisan opposition to the announcement was quick and swift. Red-state Senators and candidates know they will only survive this election if they maintain or create an image separate from the White House. It might be a little late however. In North Carolina and Louisiana, Landrieu and Hagan need strong black turnout to win but blacks are the least likely voting group to favor energy development. Ditto in Arkansas where blacks are a critical but much smaller voting bloc. So these Senators might be forced to sacrifice some of their base to court swing voters.
Republicans have telegraphed the primary theme of the fall campaign will be Obamacare. In energy rich states however, Republican candidates will likely sprinkle in energy policy rhetoric. In West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito was one of the first GOP Senate candidates to denounce the decision and called on her opponent, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, to do the same. In Arkansas and Louisiana, Congressmen Tom Cotton and Bill Cassidy have attacked their opponents on the issue.
Democrats contend that voters will care more about fixing the stuttering economy and bringing affordable Healthcare to everybody. They also argue energy policy will not be what a majority of voters base their ballot on come November. They may be right, but Republicans do not need a majority of voters nationwide to cast their ballots on energy. They simply need enough voters to cast their ballots on the issue in a handful of key states.