Rick Perry and Other Republicans Are Loving an Obama-backed Green Car Company

Green loans are a GOP target during campaign season, but job-producing projects of any color are hard for governors to turn down.

A row of new Tesla Superchargers are seen outside of the Tesla factory on August 16, 2013 in Fremont, California.   
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Aug. 11, 2014, 9:54 a.m.

Pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Rick Perry wanted to shut down the En­ergy De­part­ment. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is scram­bling to bring an En­ergy De­part­ment-backed car com­pany’s jobs to his state.

Perry is not alone: Perry’s one of sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors bat­tling to win fa­vor with an un­likely part­ner: Tesla Mo­tors, the Cali­for­nia elec­tric-car com­pany that has drawn at­tacks from Sarah Pal­in and Mitt Rom­ney.

Ari­zona’s Jan Brew­er, New Mex­ico’s Susana Mar­tinez, and Nevada’s Bri­an San­dov­al are com­pet­ing to lure Tesla’s planned mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar bat­tery plant, called the Giga­fact­ory, to their states. Jerry Brown, Cali­for­nia’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, wants the pro­ject — which is ex­pec­ted to cre­ate thou­sands of jobs — built at home.

Nevada is the front-run­ner. Tesla broke ground in June on a site out­side Reno, but the com­pany in­sists the oth­er states are still in the run­ning. Tesla told share­hold­ers on Ju­ly 31 that a fi­nal call will de­pend on factors in­clud­ing “agree­ment on the rel­ev­ant in­cent­ives.” CEO Elon Musk told fin­an­cial ana­lysts that he ex­pects the state that wins the com­pet­i­tion to put up about 10 per­cent of the es­tim­ated $4 bil­lion to $5 bil­lion the pro­ject will cost.

The GOP court­ship of Tesla un­der­scores Re­pub­lic­ans’ dif­fi­culty with fed­er­al al­tern­at­ive-en­ergy sup­ports: spend­ing on green tech­no­logy is a great small-gov­ern­ment talk­ing point when it fails, but the eco­nom­ic good­ies that suc­cess­ful spend­ing pro­duces are tough to turn down.

Dur­ing the 2011 GOP White House primary sea­son, cam­paign Perry railed against gov­ern­ment “pick­ing win­ners and losers” in en­ergy mar­kets and bashed the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion over the col­lapse of the En­ergy De­part­ment-backed sol­ar-pan­el man­u­fac­turer Solyn­dra. (Al­though Perry’s cam­paign, in 2011, also said he didn’t con­sider loan guar­an­tees to be sub­sidies in a Wash­ing­ton Post story about Perry sup­port­ing fed­er­al sup­port for a pro­posed nuc­le­ar pro­ject in Texas.)

But Solyn­dra proved to be among the ex­cep­tions, as the En­ergy De­part­ment’s over­all loan pro­file has suc­ceeded at a high rate des­pite a few mis­fires. Tesla is among the the suc­cess stor­ies: The com­pany re­ceived a $465 mil­lion En­ergy De­part­ment loan in 2010 to help fin­ance the Cali­for­nia fact­ory for its Mod­el S elec­tric sedan, then re­paid the loan in 2013 — nine years early.

Perry, who is weigh­ing an­oth­er White House bid, works ag­gress­ively to lure com­pan­ies to his state. In June, Perry even drove around Cali­for­nia’s state cap­it­ol of Sac­ra­mento in a Tesla Mod­el S, emer­ging to speak with re­port­ers in sunglasses that, as BuzzFeed put it, “look like they’re from the Mat­rix.”

But his fu­tur­ist­ic look isn’t far re­moved from the re­cent polit­ic­al past.

In re­cent years, a slew of Re­pub­lic­ans with na­tion­al stature have at­tacked Solyn­dra and oth­er flops, and the En­ergy De­part­ment’s green-tech­no­logy loan pro­grams more broadly.

The com­pet­i­tion to woo Tesla, des­pite the cri­ti­cism of the pro­gram that helped spawn it, re­calls the con­gres­sion­al probes of Solyn­dra. GOP led House com­mit­tees ag­gress­ively in­vest­ig­ated Solyn­dra and the loan pro­gram more broadly.

But pro­gram sup­port­ers fought back by cir­cu­lat­ing let­ters these same law­makers — in­clud­ing House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Chair­man Dar­rell Issa — had pre­vi­ously writ­ten to the En­ergy De­part­ment seek­ing loans for pro­jects in their states.

“Cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance is an ele­ment of the mod­us op­erandi of the Re­pub­lic­an Party on en­ergy these days,” said Ry­an Cun­ning­ham, a pub­lic-af­fairs strategist who rep­res­en­ted Solyn­dra and oth­er green en­ergy cli­ents while with the Glover Park Group.

“If the elec­ted of­fi­cials can be held to ac­count and forced to re­con­cile their rhet­or­ic with their very ra­tion­al and cor­rect sup­port for re­new­able en­ergy, then I think we would have a much more sane con­ver­sa­tion about these tech­no­lo­gies,” said Cun­ning­ham, who now heads Cun­ning­ham Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions.

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