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)

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.