For environmentalists, the 2014 midterm elections are about settling for the lesser of two evils. Several conservative Democrats up for reelection in red states are facing tough competition, and if enough of these members lose, the Senate could flip to Republican control. That would be the worst outcome for environmentalists, who need a Democrat-controlled Senate to defend against efforts to undo President Obama’s climate-change agenda and other tough environmental policies.
For the fossil-fuel industries, it’s more of a mixed bag. Many major energy companies are backing conservative — and influential — Democrats who champion their cause. But at the same time, this industry also generally supports the Republican quest to take back control of the Senate.
When it comes to how the Senate’s handling of energy and environment issues could change in 2015, the trio of vulnerable incumbent Democrats to watch the closest include Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Here’s a roundup of those races and others you should watch.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., faces what’s expected to be a tight race against the likely GOP challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy. Louisiana is one of the nation’s top energy-producing and energy-consuming states, with oil and natural gas providing a backbone to the economy. While the fight over Obama’s health care law may driver the larger narrative, expect energy to be important to the extent that deep-pocketed energy companies opt to support Landrieu over Cassidy. Her seniority in the Senate and potential to influence energy policy is already attracting more money to her campaign than Cassidy’s. On that note, she is also poised to become chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee sometime next year, which will give her another powerful tool to campaign on. If she’s not reelected, expect big changes on the committee. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is poised to chair the committee if Democrats keep control, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would chair if Republicans get the majority.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is like Landrieu in that he’s a moderate Democrat running in a conservative, oil-rich state. He’s considered less vulnerable than Landrieu, though. The Cook Political Report ranks this race as leaning Democrat, and doesn’t anticipate it becoming quite as tight of a race as the Louisiana matchup. It’s unclear who will be Begich’s GOP challenger. Candidates right now include Joe Miller, who is known in Washington mostly for beating Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in her 2010 primary race, prompting her to run as a write-in candidate (and winning) in the general election. Another possible candidate is Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Climate change, the impacts of which are felt more in Alaska than many other parts of the country, is also surfacing already in the race. Look for it to remain a theme. The National Republican Senatorial Committee funded phone calls to voters in August that claim Begich supports a carbon tax, a charge he calls flatly untrue.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., rounds out the Democratic Party’s trio of conservative, vulnerable senators up for reelection in states that are redder than they were six years ago. Pryor’s race looks especially tough for him right now because of the prospect of his likely GOP challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, whom the Cook Political Report describes as a “formidable opponent” and a “rising star in GOP circles.” Pryor is currently the top Democratic cosponsor of a mainly GOP-backed bill that would repeal the renewable-fuel standard, a top priority of the oil industry. While Republicans need to pick up as many seats as possible to win back the Senate, including this one, oil companies may want to have Pryor stick around, given his role in ensuring that the bill is bipartisan.
The reelection race of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the ultimate dilemma for environmentalists. Over the past few years, McConnell has led the GOP’s attacks on EPA regulations. He is now poised to face a close race against likely Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, the state’s current secretary of state. Grimes, like most politicians in this coal-dependent state, vocally supports the coal industry and thus criticizes most EPA regulations, including its plans to control carbon emissions. If McConnell loses and Grimes wins, it’s a win for environmentalists and liberal Democrats in that they get McConnell out of the picture and help keep control of the Senate.
Colorado Senate — and maybe fracking, too
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., seems poised to win reelection next year, but his race — and state — are particularly interesting on the fracking front. Amid Udall’s vocal support of renewable energy, he also gets significant campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel energy industry. Out of all Senate candidates in the 2014 election cycle, he’s received the sixth-highest amount so far at $185,392, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. While stressing safety and strong regulations, Udall has continually said he supports fracking, a drilling technique key to the country’s — and Colorado’s — boom in oil and natural gas over the past few years. Separate from Udall’s race, a statewide ballot initiative that somehow limits fracking may come in front of Colorado voters. Whether this happens — and the success of it if it does — could be emblematic of other statewide efforts to limit fracking, including in states like New York and California.
This is one of the few races where environmental groups are actually excited about the Democratic candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, instead of just liking the Republican candidate less. Braley has been a big supporter of renewable energy. He is also a strong supporter of the renewable fuel standard and has campaigned on the issue already this cycle. The Cook Political Report predicts this to be a lean Democratic seat, in part because Republicans don’t have a clear, strong candidate. Its primary race is expected to be crowded.
In this open Republican-held seat, Democrats are hoping to win with their presumptive nominee Michelle Nunn, a State senator, whose GOP candidate is unclear given the crowded Republican primary contest. If Nunn wins, this would make for another Democrat coming to Washington who would be conservative on energy and environment issues. Right now, though, the Cook Political Report ranks it a lean Republican seat, which is open upon the retirement announcement of Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
This is the only non-Senate race on this list, but its outcome could influence the Senate. Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member David Vitter, R-La., is expected to decide early next year whether he runs for governor, and strategists following the race say he’s likely to. If he wins, that shuffles the GOP leadership on the environment panel, which oversees such important policies as EPA regulations and the renewable fuel standard. Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi could all potentially take Vitter’s spot depending on whether Democrats or Republicans end up in control after the elections.