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POLITICS: PennAve

Democrats, Republicans grapple over Keystone XL impact on Senate races

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Congress,Senate,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Keystone XL,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Oil,Oil Sands

Democrats and Republicans are sparring over the impact that the Obama administration's latest delay on deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline will have on the 2014 elections.

Environmental organizations and Democrats say the delay will have little effect in tight Senate races in November, while GOP-aligned groups are arguing it underscores that pro-pipeline Democrats have little power in their party.

The focus is on a handful of Senate Democrats who support the $5.4 billion Canada-to-Texas project and are running tight races in red-leaning states. Six of those incumbents -- Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, John Walsh of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia -- recently urged President Obama to approve the pipeline.

The White House attempted to deflect attacks from Republicans and Democrats in red-leaning states who labeled the latest delay a political move.

The State Department announced Friday that it would halt an interagency review of the pipeline while it waits for the Nebraska Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the current pipeline route. The move could put a White House decision on the pipeline beyond the November elections, sparing Obama a ruling that would either upset his environmental base or jeopardize the electoral chances of some Senate Democrats.

"I know there's a great urge and has always been to make this about politics," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. "But we've see along this process, along the way here, along the route, you know, a series of actions taken in keeping with past practice where the reviews are done out of the State Department."

Democrats say Keystone XL, which has has the support of some union groups and business but faces fierce opposition from environmentalists, is low on the radar for most voters.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Keystone XL wouldn't play a significant role in those Senate races, which she said serve as "referendums on the candidates running." Similarly, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky downplayed the pipeline in comments to the Washington Examiner.

"Across the country, voters are going to have a crystal clear choice between a Democrat who is fighting for women, seniors and the middle class in their states and Republicans who are pushing an anti-middle class agenda because they're bought and paid for by special interest billionaires like the Koch brothers," he said.

Republicans, however, see the delay as a nod to billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, who has pledged $50 million of his own money to his San Francisco-based NextGen Climate Action PAC to use in the November midterms and beyond. They have increasingly accused Senate Democrats and the Obama administration of kowtowing to the former hedge fund manager, who has said he wouldn't shy away from attempting to unseat Democratic Keystone XL boosters.

The conservative groups are trying to make the case that the delay suggests the pipeline's Democratic supporters are ineffective at advancing their priorities.

"Complaining about the decision won't be enough for vulnerable Senate Democrats, and they will now be cast as ineffective voices who have failed to convince Obama this is about jobs and the economy," GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said in an email.

It remains to be seen whether attacks from the right will lead to vulnerable Democrats taking action, rather than speaking out, to buck the party line.

Therefore, the key for Republicans is convincing voters that the Democratic Party is at odds with energy policies supported by Landrieu and other centrist Democrats, said Tom Pyle, president of the conservative think tank Institute for Energy Research and its advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance.

"Look at Mary Landrieu, for example. By many measures she's good on energy," Pyle said. "Guess what? Her leader is still [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.]. Let's see between now and November how many of her priorities make it to the Senate floor."

That's the tack the National Republican Senatorial Committee is taking.

"Landrieu has been telling anyone who will listen how influential she is after being named chairman of the Energy Committee, but it turns out that Landrieu isn't influential at all," the NRSC said in an email Monday.

Environmental groups said conservative attacks on pro-pipeline Democrats' perceived effectiveness obfuscates the role the Senate is playing in the Keystone XL process. It is up to the State Department, not the Senate, to decide whether the pipeline is of national interest, they said.

The House, however, has passed legislation that would take the Keystone XL decision out of the president's hands -- Senate Republicans, with some Democrats, have pushed the Democratic majority in the Senate to take up that legislation. But Obama would likely reject it, and it's not clear whether the bill would have two-thirds majority to override a veto.

"Although this issue has become political, the national interest determination must be decided based on factual analysis. As such, the decision will be based on science and economics, not the power or lack thereof any senator or group of senators," Josh Saks, legislative director with the National Wildlife Federation, said in an email.

Heather Taylor-Miesle, who runs the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, added that previous conservative attempts to use Keystone XL to rally the base have fallen flat. She argued that opposition to it is a more effective tool for bringing Democratic voters to the poll.

"We’ve already seen efforts to use Keystone XL as a political bludgeon haven’t been particularly effective. Efforts to make Keystone XL an election issue in 2012 backfired. Keystone XL is a very important issue for the people opposed to the project — the intensity is all on our side," she said in an email.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of governmental affairs with the League of Conservation Voters, said she doesn't anticipate the most recent delay will do much one way or another to sway voters.

"This whole premise that this delay will have a big impact in the elections is just wrong," she said.

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