In the three months since a ruptured pipeline sent more than 800,000 gallons of oil into his district's waterways, Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.) never strayed far from the spill response and won GOP support for safety reforms. But those efforts are nowhere to be found in his re-election rhetoric.
Locked in a rematch with ex-Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) for Michigan's 7th District, Schauer leads with bread-and-butter economic issues -- manufacturing, Social Security, trade with China -- while omitting the words "pipeline" or "oil" from his campaign website.
That apolitical approach in one of the nation's most cutthroat and well-funded House races stands in stark contrast to the Louisiana Senate race, where candidates' responses to the summertime Gulf of Mexico oil gusher have sparked nasty advertising skirmishes.
Such a low-key approach to high-profile calamity is in keeping with the pragmatic political culture of Michigan, where the charges and countercharges that have followed Louisiana officials' Gulf spill response could risk backfiring with the electorate. Indeed, Michigan environmentalists said the Enbridge rupture also stayed in the background of the hotly contested governor's race.
"I am surprised" that Schauer has not played up his central role in pipeline safety while on the trail, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center Executive Director Nick Schroeck said.
"I think what he's trying to do is separate Schauer as a member of Congress and Schauer as a candidate running for re-election," added Schroeck, who has aligned with the freshman Democrat's tough stance against Enbridge Energy Partners LP, the Canadian pipeline company behind the July oil leak. "However, I think he could take some credit and pat himself on the back a little bit. ... I think it would be a winning issue."
Asked why Schauer would choose to downplay the pipeline issue during his race, campaign spokesman Zack Pohl said via e-mail: "For Mark, this was never a political issue -- it was always about protecting the communities he represents and holding Enbridge fully accountable for its actions."
Not until prompted by a debate moderator this week did Schauer openly tout his work taking on Enbridge, which included testimony before two congressional committees and lead authorship of a bipartisan plan to improve notification times for pipeline leaks (H.R. 6008) that unanimously passed the House last month.
"When there's a spill, every second counts," Schauer said during his Wednesday face-off with Walberg. He then touted his legislative effort to "make sure that companies act responsibly when they've had pipeline leaks."
Yet Schauer's GOP opponent did not shy away from criticizing the incumbent for his approach to the oil leak during the debate. Walberg, who mounted a successful challenge from the right to then-Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) in 2006 before losing to Schauer two years later, said local officials "were working extremely well" alongside Enbridge on the spill response and did not need Schauer's intervention in the issue.
"Mark Schauer was a lone voice out there crying, 'Stop! Hold back, you're a bad company. Let's do research, let's do studies,'" Walberg said.
Walberg's campaign did not return a request for comment on his stance on pipeline safety and the Michigan spill response.
Not off the radar
Anne Woiwode, Michigan chapter director for the Sierra Club, described the Enbridge spill as a lingering worry across the state, particularly given that the leaking crude was contained fairly close to Lake Michigan. Still, she added, "the Great Lakes are so central" to Michiganders' identity that "I think folks may not have viewed [the spill] as something appropriate for that kind of electioneering."
Despite its minor profile in the campaign, the pipeline disaster is sure to remain an inescapable part of life for many in Michigan's 7th district. Even after the emergency phase of the cleanup has wound down, oil booms remain in place in several locations and monitoring for groundwater contamination in the region is expected to last for years.
"The resource damage is still occurring," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. "No one knows what the long-term damage to the ecosystem is going to be from this oil spill."
And that lingering presence in voters' lives might well pay dividends for Schauer if he ties in pipeline safety more closely to a broader populist message. David Holtz, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, described polling he has seen that shows Michiganders responding well to an emphasis on "Enbridge and holding Big Oil accountable for the cleanup."
"They do not want to pay for cleanup of oil spills and do not want elected officials siding with oil companies on this issue," said Holtz, a former environmental advocate.
Nonetheless, Holtz added, he understands why Schauer's campaign has not embraced his role in the oil leak. "It's the kind of issue, just like the Gulf oil spill, that was particularly resonant closest to the time the spill was actually occurring and the cleanup was taking place," he said. "We have a very short attention span these days."
Several environmental advocates who watched Schauer push Enbridge on its handling of the pipeline spill, which has prompted multiple state and federal investigations as well as several class action lawsuits, predicted that the campaign would have played out differently if the sour economy were not commanding voters' attention.
"This election is all about jobs, jobs, jobs, and Michigan is one of the highest-unemployment states in the nation," West Michigan Environmental Action Council policy director Nick Occhipinti said. "It would be a lot more of a concern to folks ... if they weren't so concerned about their financial situations."