Obama Is Sabotaging Democratic Senate Hopes

On energy issues, the president is actively making it harder for his party to win.

US President Barack Obama tours damage caused by Hurricane Isaac with Senator Mary Landrieu in the Ridgewood neighbourhood of LaPlace, in Saint John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, September 3, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
June 5, 2014, 4:31 p.m.

Does Pres­id­ent Obama care about keep­ing the Sen­ate?

The pres­id­ent re­portedly has told his close al­lies that los­ing the Sen­ate would be “un­bear­able,” but his ad­min­is­tra­tion is do­ing everything pos­sible to make things dif­fi­cult for his party’s most vul­ner­able sen­at­ors. On en­ergy is­sues alone, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cisions to im­pose new En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions on coal-fired plants and in­def­in­itely delay a de­cision on the Key­stone XL pipeline could help burn­ish his long-term en­vir­on­ment­al leg­acy, but at the ex­pense of los­ing com­plete con­trol of Con­gress.

Even as the White House and en­vir­on­ment­al al­lies are in­sist­ing the reg­u­lat­ory push is a polit­ic­al win­ner, Obama is get­ting push­back from his own party. In Ken­tucky, Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes took a page out of Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s play­book, deem­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s EPA reg­u­la­tions part of its “war on coal.” Oth­er battle­ground-state Demo­crats have been more cir­cum­spect in their re­ac­tion, but few have em­braced the new reg­u­la­tions with open arms. And every red-state Sen­ate Demo­crat up in 2014, whose fates de­term­ine wheth­er they hold the ma­jor­ity, cri­ti­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion for its latest delay in ap­prov­ing con­struc­tion of Key­stone XL. Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana has even tailored her cam­paign mes­saging around op­pos­i­tion to Obama on en­ergy is­sues.

To un­der­stand the dis­con­nect between the White House and Con­gress’s views of en­ergy polit­ics, just look at the dis­par­ate res­ults from 2010 and 2012 in the en­ergy-pro­du­cing battle­ground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vir­gin­ia. Obama won all three states in 2012, even though Mitt Rom­ney at­tacked him over his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­vir­on­ment­ally minded policies throughout the cam­paign. But in the pre­vi­ous midterm elec­tion, when blue-col­lar work­ers made up a lar­ger share of the elect­or­ate, Re­pub­lic­ans picked up a whop­ping 13 (of 28) Demo­crat­ic-held House seats in those states, with Rob Port­man and Pat Toomey scor­ing huge Sen­ate vic­tor­ies. Most of the suc­cess­ful Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers in those states cam­paigned against the Demo­crat­ic cap-and-trade le­gis­la­tion, which didn’t be­come law but non­ethe­less served as a ral­ly­ing cry for the GOP. Obama won des­pite his lib­er­al en­vir­on­ment­al policies, but when he wasn’t on the bal­lot, his party lost nearly half of its mem­bers in those cru­cial battle­ground states.

Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Geoff Gar­in ar­gued in a con­fer­ence call ar­ranged by the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters on Thursday that, in con­trast to cap-and-trade, the new EPA reg­u­la­tions on coal plants are less polit­ic­ally prob­lem­at­ic, with wide­spread sup­port in two swing states. His polling in Pennsylvania and Vir­gin­ia showed voters are much more com­fort­able with a reg­u­lat­ory ap­proach led by EPA than a pro­cess ini­ti­ated by politi­cians in Con­gress. It’s a nov­el idea, but an ar­gu­ment that Demo­crat­ic elec­ted of­fi­cials in en­ergy-pro­du­cing states haven’t em­braced. (In­deed, Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Landrieu, fa­cing a dif­fi­cult reelec­tion in 2014, made the ex­act op­pos­ite ar­gu­ment to Roll Call: “While it is im­port­ant to re­duce car­bon in the at­mo­sphere, this should not be achieved by EPA reg­u­la­tions.”¦ Con­gress should set the terms, goals, and time frame.”) The poll also found a sur­pris­ing 60 per­cent sup­port for EPA car­bon reg­u­la­tions in coal-pro­du­cing south­w­est Vir­gin­ia — a find­ing countered by elec­tion res­ults show­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant swing away from the Demo­crat­ic Party in the re­gion over en­ergy policy since Obama took of­fice.

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The ad­min­is­tra­tion also fre­quently cites Vir­gin­ia Gov. Terry McAul­iffe’s sup­port for EPA rules on coal plants in his cam­paign as proof that Demo­crats can win in en­ergy-rich states with an en­vir­on­ment­al mes­sage. They’re right that the new Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion can thrive in sub­urb­an­iz­ing Vir­gin­ia, where the state’s demo­graph­ics have rap­idly changed. But there’s little doubt that McAul­iffe’s po­s­i­tions badly cost him in the coal-pro­du­cing south­w­est sec­tor of the state. Des­pite win­ning 48 per­cent of the vote, McAul­iffe won only 32 per­cent of the vote in the state’s coal coun­try (roughly en­com­passing Vir­gin­ia’s 9th Dis­trict) — a total lower than Obama’s 35 per­cent in 2012 and even short of Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Creigh Deeds’s 33 per­cent in 2009. McAul­iffe won the gov­ernor­ship be­cause the pop­u­la­tion in the re­gion has de­creased, while it has rap­idly grown in the Demo­crat­ic-friendly Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs. But in states where en­ergy-sec­tor voters make up a lar­ger share of the elect­or­ate — just look at the 2014 Sen­ate battle­ground map for ex­amples — the im­pact could be con­sequen­tial. Their num­bers may be shrink­ing, but their rap­id evol­u­tion from Demo­crat­ic-friendly voters to auto­mat­ic Re­pub­lic­ans will have an im­pact in the midterms.

Ken­tucky of­fers the starkest ex­ample, where Mc­Con­nell is the Demo­crats’ juici­est tar­get in an elec­tion cycle with lim­ited pickup op­por­tun­it­ies. Mc­Con­nell has reg­u­larly sought to tie Lun­der­gan Grimes to the pres­id­ent’s en­ergy policies, and re­cently pro­posed le­gis­la­tion (“The Coal Coun­try Pro­tec­tion Act”) to re­quire the ad­min­is­tra­tion to meet bench­marks be­fore EPA’s plan can go in­to ef­fect.

It’s easy to for­get, but Mc­Con­nell won only 53 per­cent of the vote and trailed busi­ness­man Bruce Lun­sford for a time in his last Sen­ate cam­paign. One of his weak spots was east­ern Ken­tucky’s tra­di­tion­ally Demo­crat­ic coal coun­try, where he badly lost in Pike County (with 43 per­cent of the vote), Floyd County (35 per­cent), and Knott County (38 per­cent). Two years later, Rand Paul won 47 per­cent of the vote in these three counties — a marked im­prove­ment. In the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, Rom­ney won a whop­ping 71 per­cent — a re­mark­able shift in such a short amount of time.

In the Sen­ate race, Lun­der­gan Grimes will fare bet­ter than Obama, but Mc­Con­nell should eas­ily im­prove on his 2008 per­form­ance in coal coun­try. And if Lun­der­gan Grimes doesn’t re­ceive tra­di­tion­al Demo­crat­ic levels of sup­port in coal coun­try, she’ll have to more than make up the dif­fer­ence in the urb­an cen­ters of Louis­ville and Lex­ing­ton — or hope for de­pressed con­ser­vat­ive turnout from the con­ten­tious Re­pub­lic­an primary. With Mc­Con­nell’s weak ap­prov­al rat­ings, it’s pos­sible — but it’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly chal­len­ging with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­vir­on­ment­al push.

There are five ad­di­tion­al com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races that bil­lion­aire cli­mate act­iv­ist Tom Stey­er, who pledged to spend $100 mil­lion in le­gis­lat­ive races, is avoid­ing en­tirely — Alaska, Arkan­sas, Louisi­ana, Geor­gia, and North Car­o­lina — an ac­know­ledg­ment of the polit­ic­al head­winds with this year’s map. And even some of the pro­posed tar­gets, such as Iowa and Col­or­ado, are states that de­pend on coal for a ma­jor­ity of their elec­tri­city needs. (Demo­crats thought Iowa Sen­ate nom­in­ee Joni Ernst blundered badly when she cri­ti­cized the Clean Wa­ter Act in Iowa, without con­sid­er­ing the op­pos­i­tion to the reg­u­la­tions from farm­ers and ag­ri­cul­tur­al in­terests in a farm-heavy state.) In those states, the GOP re­but­tal will be along the lines of James Carville’s “It’s the eco­nomy, stu­pid” — a re­tort that res­on­ates when the eco­nomy con­trac­ted in the last quarter.

Like with gun con­trol, en­vir­on­ment­al ad­voc­ates fre­quently tout polls show­ing over­whelm­ing sup­port for favored meas­ures — po­s­i­tions that are squarely at odds with the ac­tions of their own mem­bers who have their polit­ic­al ca­reers on the line. Some of the dis­con­nect is due to the pre­cise word­ing of com­plex policy ques­tions, and some of it is be­cause the in­tens­ity is on the side of voters be­ing burdened by high­er costs and reg­u­la­tions. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that Obama delayed im­ple­ment­ing these reg­u­la­tions un­til after his own reelec­tion.

In 2009, as his ap­prov­al rat­ings were dip­ping, Obama mem­or­ably told former Rep. Mari­on Berry of Arkan­sas that the vet­er­an Blue Dog Demo­crat didn’t need to worry about his reelec­tion be­cause his own per­son­al pop­ular­ity would bail him out. Berry re­tired any­way, and a Re­pub­lic­an won his seat by 9 points. The pres­id­ent and his team seem to be whist­ling past the polit­ic­al grave­yard yet again, ex­cept this time they’re so con­fid­ent they’re act­ively put­ting stum­bling blocks in their friends’ way.

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