Democrats, environmentalists and clean energy backers hope GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's solidified opposition to a key wind energy tax break helps motivate voters in closely contested, windy states to tip the election toward President Obama.
Romney's campaign Monday said for the first time that the presumptive Republican nominee would like to see the production tax credit (PTC) lapse as scheduled at the end of this year (E&E Daily, July 31). That position puts him at odds with Republicans in states like Iowa that want to see the credit extended, and it is a harder line than had been taken by many senior GOP lawmakers, who have said the credit should phase out over a number of years.
The position Romney's campaign has staked out, which ties opposition to the credit to his broader criticism of Obama's support for renewable energy, also may backfire among voters in states with large wind industries, Democrats hope. At the same time, his stand generated cheers yesterday from conservative groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the Club for Growth, which praised him precisely for taking a position that could be politically unpopular.
Extending the credit enjoys broad support nationally, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by National Journal. The poll found that 64 percent of the public, including 48 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents, favors extending tax breaks for wind and other renewable resources.
Opposition to the PTC may carry the most political consequences in Iowa, where the news was the top story yesterday in the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, and where the state's entire congressional delegation -- Democrats and Republicans -- supports its extension.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who authored the first PTC bill in 1992, was so shocked at Romney's opposition that he hesitated to weigh in on how it could affect the race for the state's six electoral votes. Grassley said he had offered to advise the campaign earlier this year on energy issues important to the state, such as support for wind energy and biofuels, but he was not consulted before Monday's announcement, which was issued while Romney was out of the country.
"Nobody consulted us on this, so I think ... I gotta get to the bottom of what they're doing because I think people that didn't know what they were doing said it because [Romney] was over in Poland -- he obviously wasn't thinking about wind energy," Grassley told reporters in the Capitol yesterday.
The American Wind Energy Association earlier this week released results of a poll it commissioned from Public Opinion Strategies showing that 57 percent of Iowa voters, including 41 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents, would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who did not support expanding wind power. About 7,000 jobs are supported by the state's wind industry, according to AWEA.
Iowa is expected to be among the closest contests in November, and the two candidates are virtually tied in recent polls there. According to the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, Obama is at 45.8 percent support to Romney's 44.5 percent.
Another wind-heavy state that could help decide the election is Colorado, where Romney's newly aggressive opposition to the PTC also got plenty of attention yesterday. The industry supports at least 5,000 to 6,000 Colorado jobs, according to AWEA, and extending the credit has bipartisan support among the state's congressional delegation. Freshman Colorado Republican Reps. Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton were among those who signed onto a letter to House leaders in June urging extension of the credit.
Obama holds a slight lead in the state -- 46.5 percent to 43.5 percent -- according to the Real Clear Politics average, but it is widely considered a tossup in November.
Ohio, which has about 6,000 wind energy jobs, and Pennsylvania, with 4,000 jobs, also are swing states where political operatives say Romney's PTC opposition could become an issue on the campaign trail.
"Romney hates tax credits for renewable energy -- which is creating jobs across the country -- but simply loves them when they benefit the oil companies who are funding his campaign," said Bill Burton, a former Obama White House aide who co-founded the pro-Obama "super PAC" Priorities USA Action. "That will definitely have an impact in swing states this fall."
Priorities USA teamed up with the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund earlier this year and produced a TV ad attacking Romney over his contributions from oil companies and opposition to eliminating oil and gas company tax breaks. Burton did not say whether more energy-related ads would be launched against the presumptive GOP nominee.
Jeff Gohringer, an LCV spokesman, also would not divulge the group's plans but said Romney's firm opposition to the PTC and other support for renewable energy would be the "cornerstone of how we communicate" with voters that the former governor would not promote green energy.
"He was bad before he came out against the PTC," Gohringer said yesterday. "He's even worse now."
The Sierra Club has recently made the PTC a central focus of its ongoing advertising campaign against several Republican lawmakers who either oppose its extension or have been insufficiently vocal in calling to renew it (Greenwire, July 30). The group released a statement from Executive Director Michael Brune lambasting Romney's opposition as evidence that he "is more interested in padding the profits of his big polluter campaign donors than helping American workers stay in their jobs."
It remains unclear whether the group will expand its advertising to include the presidential race.
"While we don't have any specific plans on ads targeting Romney at this time, his opposition to the Wind PTC could definitely hurt him in states with thousands of wind jobs like Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado," Sierra Club spokesman Trey Pollard said in an email yesterday.
While the political consequences of Romney's opposition -- after months of avoiding drawing such a line in the sand -- won't be fully realized until November, supporters praised him for potentially risking votes.
"It is important to note that Governor Romney's decision took political courage; Colorado and Iowa are heavy consumers of wind energy -- both are pivotal swing states," wrote Chris Prandoni, of the fiscally conservative Americans for Tax Reform, in a blog post noting the intense lobbying the wind industry has engaged in to bring Republican supporters on board. "Now dependent on the PTC, the wind lobby will likely set its sights on the Romney campaign. Certainly aware of this reality, Gov. Romney chose policy over politics and will be making the case for full expiration of the PTC."
The conservative Club for Growth also was quick to praise Romney's decision, calling it "absolutely correct" in a statement from its president, Chris Chocola.
"Subsidies for the energy industry distort the marketplace and are simply bad policy. If a market exists for wind production the private sector will create it, not government," Chocola said. "When it comes to wind energy, Governor Romney deserves credit from fiscal conservatives for choosing pro-growth policy over political expediency."
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