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Keystone an Opportunity and a Hazard for Plains Dems Keystone an Opportunity and a Hazard for Plains Dems

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Keystone an Opportunity and a Hazard for Plains Dems

January 20, 2012
It's worth noting that North Dakota has the lowest state unemployment rate in the nation: 3.4 percent the last time the Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures, in November. But Obama's decision has particular resonance in North Dakota, a major energy-producing state that is largely in favor of the pipeline. What's more, Obama is unpopular in the Peace Garden State, and is expected to lose there in November. (He lost by eight points in the state in 2008.) The state has also been trending Republican: The GOP picked up the state's lone House seat and a Senate seat in 2010. For these reasons, it makes political sense for Heitkamp to separate herself from the president on the issue. "President Obama's decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline is the wrong decision," Heitkamp said on a conference call with reporters on Friday morning. "It's another example, in my opinion, of what's wrong with politics." But when asked about the extent to which politics played a role in the posture she has adopted, Heitkamp, who is running against Republican Rep. Rick Berg, flatly said it was not part of her calculus. "We take an important issue about energy independence, about lowering consumer prices at the gas pump and improving our lack of dependence on foreign oil and we turn it into a political issue," Heitkamp said. "There is not political calculation in any of this." Regardless, the president's decision presents something of a double-edged sword for Heitkamp. On the one hand, it is an opportunity for her to separate herself from the president, as national and state Republicans consistently try to tie her to Obama. On the other hand, it's not particularly useful to have headlines in local papers about the leader of Heitkamp's party rejecting the pipeline. Cognizant of the fact that his decision could rub many independent and Democrats in North Dakota the wrong way, Obama's campaign emailed residents in the state with an explanation of the president's decision, Politico reported. Heitkamp isn't the only Great Plains Democrat react unfavorably to Obama's decision. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who faces a tough reelection battle against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, also expressed disappointment. "I am disappointed in the President's decision. Just as I have supported Montana's renewable energy jobs, I have long supported responsibly building this pipeline with the highest safety standards and with respect for private property rights," Tester said in a statement. "Oil, coal, natural gas, wind, geothermal and biofuels all provide good jobs in Montana. I will continue to champion Montana's role in securing America's energy future." Republicans are also tying Tester to Obama and may ultimately have an easier job doing so, considering that he, unlike Heitkamp, has taken votes in the Senate for White House-backed measures like the stimulus and the health care law. Separating himself on the Keystone pipeline issue is a political no-brainier for the first term Democrat. If Heitkamp and Tester can effectively convince voters that they stand in contrast to the president on this issue, it could become easier to make their pitches as independent voices as time goes on. But national Republicans are trying to ensure that does not happen. "Given President Obama's deep unpopularity in states like Montana and North Dakota, it's no surprise to see Democrats like Tester and Heitkamp run for the hills. But throughout the next year, voters will be reminded that both of them campaigned for Obama, both of them predicted greatness in his presidency, and for the last several years, both of them stood side-by-side with Obama on virtually every major issue," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh.
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