CAMPAIGN 2012:

GOP aims to taint Bluedog Dems with Solyndra scandal

During the 2010 election cycle, Republicans earned a surprising amount of traction with an attack ad that hit Democratic incumbents for supporting stimulus spending that ended up funding windmill manufacturing in China.

In 2012, Solyndra could be the new Chinese windmills.

More than four weeks after the company shuttered its doors, the story of the failed solar energy tube manufacturer that received more than half a billion dollars in government loans shows no signs of fading.

Today is the start of week five of the Solyndra saga, and the National Republican Congressional Committee is marking the occasion with a new release blasting 51 Democrats for supporting the stimulus package that helped fund the Department of Energy loan program that made the Solyndra deal possible.

"Jim Matheson's wasteful $800 billion stimulus clearly failed to create the jobs promised while benefitting companies like Solyndra and the Democrat donors and allies who are profiting from them," NRCC communications director Paul Lindsay says in one release targeting the Utah Democrat. "We've seen how Matheson's first stimulus worked out, and his constituents in Utah will remember that the sequel is always worse than the original as President Obama and his Congressional Democrat allies push for a second round."

Another release targeting Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) notes that "as the scandals continue to mount and the economy continues to struggle, John Barrow needs to explain why he spent nearly a trillion dollars on his failed stimulus plan."

Along with being two of the NRCC's top targets of the 2012 cycle, Matheson and Barrow also serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which means they have had a front row seat for the Solyndra action.

At least four investigations into Solyndra are currently being undertaken by Congress, the Department of Justice and the inspectors general of the Treasury Department and the Department of Energy. But with the executive branch agencies tight-lipped about their probes -- at least for now -- the House Energy and Commerce Committee has become ground zero for Solyndra developments.

While their committee assignment puts them closer to the Solyndra issue than most of their colleagues, Matheson and Barrow appear to be taking different paths in managing the politically volatile issue.

Unlike some of his fellow members of Congress, Barrow is not someone who often seeks out the media spotlight. But perhaps anticipating that Republicans would try make a connection between him, the Obama administration and Solyndra, Barrow has been opening up to reporters recently about the failed solar energy company and the lessons that Congress should take from it.

Barrow told state and national media outlets last week that he believes Solyndra is a byproduct of Congress delegating too much of its spending authority to the executive branch.

It is a problem that was born from the earmarking excesses of the past, he said in an interview Friday.

"Congress has not been as good a custodian of the people's money in the past and as a result of past abuses of the earmarking process, with highly placed members of Congress abusing their incredible influence at the closing stages of the appropriations process," Barrow said. "The political repercussions of that have been to forswear all earmarks, which is basically Congress abandoning its responsibility to decide how the people's money gets spent."

Barrow said he is no fan of the earmarking process. "But I don't think the solution to congressional abuse of the appropriations process is to give all the money to the executive [branch] and see if they can abuse it even more," he added.

These days, Barrow said, the only vetting that happens comes after the spending has taken place. He pointed to the Solyndra investigation by the Energy and Commerce Committee as a prime example of that. Congress needs to reassert itself on the front end, he added.

"The old carpenter's rule still applies; measure twice, cut once," he said.

Barrow was less inclined to discuss how Republicans are trying to tie targeted Democrats to the Obama administration and Solyndra ahead of the 2012 election.

"It's entirely up to them how they use it, but the folks who are running Congress right now have a fair amount of responsibility for how money is being spent," he said.

Barrow is in for perhaps the toughest race of his congressional career due to a Republican-lead redistricting process in his state. Unless the federal government steps in to challenge the redistricting lines that have been drawn, Barrow will be running in a district with the addition of a largely Republican rural section of the state and without the Savannah Democratic base that has been a cornerstone of his support in the past.

Barrow also did not want to speculate on how long the Solyndra investigation would drag on.

"The investigation should go as far as it can go to find out who did what and why they did what they did," he said, adding that "no one should be immune from being fired."

Barrow's approach to Solyndra seems to be much more proactive than Matheson's.

The closest Matheson has come to talking about Solyndra is his recent criticism of a Republican short-term government funding measure that included cuts to a fuel efficient car program and the DOE loan program that provided the funded the Solyndra deal.

"While I applaud the idea of cutting spending elsewhere to pay for disaster relief," Matheson told The Salt Lake Tribune, "why would we want to cut from a program that creates private-sector jobs and encourages innovation to wean us off foreign oil?"

But when asked for an interview to discuss Solyndra, a spokeswoman for Matheson said last week that the congressman had no comment.

Matheson is facing similar re-election problems as Barrow, as a Republican-led redistricting effort in the Beehive State has put the target squarely on his 2nd District. The congressman has said he is considering running for Senate or statewide office, or perhaps running in the new district that will eventually be created in the state.

But as he contemplates his choices, Matheson seems to be in no rush to jump into the Solyndra fray. Perhaps the congressman believes, as some Democratic strategists do, that Solyndra -- while a political hot potato right now -- is not going to be an issue in the long run.

"I think that if the election were this week it'd be a problem but we have over a year until the election," said Jon Vogel, a Democratic strategist for the firm Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly who previously served as executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "This may be a big story right now but 14 months from today there's going to be more important things in the news that people will be talking about."

A recent poll on Solyndra seems to add some credence to that argument.

Last week the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates released a joint research statement that found that, in at least one battleground state, "Solyndra is still news junkie fodder and not dinner table conversation."

A survey of 650 voters in Ohio conducted a week after Solyndra filed for bankruptcy found that the awareness level of the issue was low. Moreover, voters were twice as likely to see Solyndra as the exception, rather than the rule when it comes to green job investments.

"Solyndra is no health care reform -- at least not yet," the polling memo noted.

But Brad Todd, a prominent Republican strategist who helped guide the NRCC's strategy during the 2010 GOP electoral tidal wave in the House, said Solyndra has the potential to haunt Democrats all the way to November 2012.

"It goes right at this administration's proclivity to throw money at politics and claim that they've done something for the economy," Todd said last week. "This is going to be a very potent anecdote for candidates around the country who are seeking to tell the larger story that this administration just recklessly spends money and can't fix the economy."

In many ways, Todd said, Solyndra is the same story as the Chinese windmills. And he does not think it is the last time the Obama administration is going to be embarrassed by a green jobs project that it touted in the past.

"This administration is willing to do almost anything with almost no vetting if it will get them a story about allegedly creating green jobs," Todd said. "They believe in green jobs like my daughter believes in the tooth fairy."

Want to read more stories like this?

E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.

Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.