Have Republicans gained political traction after making ground on offshore drilling? Will the lifting of the drilling moratorium affect the outcome of congressional races? What impacts do the financial crisis and bailout have on the presence of energy issues in congressional races? During today's OnPoint, E&E political reporter Alex Kaplun takes a look at some of the key Senate and House races in which energy issues are playing a major role. Kaplun also discusses the GOP's new energy message and previews tonight's vice presidential debate.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today is E&E political reporter Alex Kaplun. Alex, thanks for being here.
Alex Kaplun: Sure.
Monica Trauzzi: Alex, the big question heading into the elections is have Republicans gained any political traction as a result of the vote on offshore drilling? The moratorium was lifted. Are there congressional races that are changing as a result of this ban being lifted?
Alex Kaplun: I think there certainly were congressional races that were changing because of the offshore drilling issue. I'm not sure that the ban being lifted now, just how much that helps the Republicans in particular because it came right at the same time as the financial crisis and that whole debate. I mean that kind of wiped the issue off the table. You know, the ban expired this week. We actually haven't seen that much talk about it. So I think we certainly saw a narrowing in the polls in some races, a couple of weeks ago, going back before that. It will be interesting to see if that continues at all now that we have this other issue that's kind of overwhelmed a lot of the discussion on energy.
Monica Trauzzi: And the debate on offshore drilling isn't over yet. There are many Democrats that have signaled that they would like to take the issue back up in March. How is that going to play into the election? Can the Democrats sort of use that as a talking point?
Alex Kaplun: I think this is something that Democrats can try to use to sort of assuage their kind of base voters. Again, it's really hard talking about energy issues right now because of the financial crisis issue. I do think with this idea of, well, we'll come back to revive the ban, that could be something that's a factor. I think Republicans are certainly going to try to make that issue a factor, kind of try to say wait a minute, even though we kind of won on this issue don't forget about it. The debate is not over. This is something that we need to keep talking about through Election Day and beyond into that.
Monica Trauzzi: So, energy issues will sort of be folded into the overall financial message? I mean people are still waiting in gas lines in the Southeast and gas prices are still relatively high. So will those messages be sort of rolled into the financial discussion?
Alex Kaplun: I think so and I think this is where we might see some of the kind of evening out to the message we saw in the past. I mean until sort of the offshore drilling debate became a really, really hot issue, both parties were trying to make energy policy sort of part of a broader economic issue. And I think that's sort of what we're going back to. I do think the Republicans are going to still try to keep hammering on the offshore drilling issue and, as you mentioned, using this idea that Democrats are going to try to bring it back. You know, this initiative really needs to rev up their base and they're not going to want to let go of the topic. They're going to say focus on that, focus also, to a lesser extent, on ANWR and some other drilling opportunities and kind of keep hammering Democrats and saying, you know, wait a minute, we kind of got this small victory, but there's a whole lot of other things out there.
Monica Trauzzi: I want to walk through some of the key congressional races that you're going to be keeping an eye on in the next couple of weeks where energy is playing a big role. Let's start off with the New Mexico Senate race. It's the seat that Senator Domenici is vacating because he's retiring. And things are getting pretty heated between Tom Udall and Steve Pearce there, especially on the heels of the moratorium on offshore drilling being lifted. What do you see happening in this race and how is offshore drilling affecting the discussion and the race there?
Alex Kaplun: Yeah, I think that race has been really interesting because that was sort of the prime example of the shift in energy. You know, Tom Udall ran a very, very green candidate to start the race. There's people I talked to who even said they were surprised how far to the left he was on those issues in a state like New Mexico, which is a producing state, where there's sort of a vibrant fossil fuel industry. And once sort of all this pressure in offshore drilling came down, you saw Tom Udall not necessarily back away from his positions, but he came out with ads that basically put offshore drilling right at the top as this is one of my energy priorities. And I don't know how much that helped in blunting Steve Pearce's attacks. I mean the race narrowed briefly and now it's back to being sort of Tom Udall with a very clear lead. I suspect that Steve Pearce, once we sort of move past the financial crisis issue, is going to go back to some of his energy issues. I mean that's an area where he has a lot of expertise and even in the fallout from offshore drilling; he tried to attack Udall saying, you know, this is not really what you believe. It's not your genuine position. I suspect he'll probably go back to that in the closing weeks.
Monica Trauzzi: Lots of attention on Alaska these days with Governor Palin as the VP candidate and it looks like Congressman Young is facing a difficult uphill battle there in Alaska. Is he feeling the heat as a result of the Ted Stevens investigation and then all of the attention that Sarah Palin is getting about her energy message?
Alex Kaplun: Yeah, I mean I think some of Don Young's problems are sort of separate from Ted Stevens. I mean there's a whole corruption issue that's captured a lot of Alaska politicians and they're both embroiled in that. I think Don Young would have probably had political problems regardless of whether or not Ted Stevens got indicted. You know, the Palin issue is actually very, very interesting as it comes to Don Young. She actually endorsed his opponent in the primary. It's not clear if she's going to endorse Don Young or Ted Stevens for that matter. I would guess that she wouldn't, because I don't think she wants to come out and endorse a politician with some questionable ethical issues at this point. And what we've actually seen is that Don Young has sort of tried to embrace Sarah Palin a little bit, but the polls aren't really reflecting that and he's sort of substantially behind and I don't know if he's going to be able to close that gap. You know, one of the really interesting things there also is that Don Young has always run ... a guy who can really help the Alaska energy industry. And being pro-ANWR is really popular in Alaska. The Democrat in that race, Ethan Berkowitz, has really made an effort to kind of reach out to those energy producers. He's not necessarily getting their money, but he's certainly sending them a message of don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm pro-ANWR. I'm going to try to build a natural gas pipeline, all those things that are important to the Alaska energy industry.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, over to Colorado now, Mark Udall and Bob Schaffer are going after Wayne Allard's seat and a lot to talk about renewable energy there. Will the fact that renewable energy tax credits have faced a very uphill battle during this session of Congress, will that play into this race?
Alex Kaplun: It probably will on some level. I think if anything it can be a very useful talking point for Udall. I mean that's something he can campaign on. He can say, look, we didn't get renewable energy, in part, in large part because of the Sindah position, you know, put me where Wayne Allard is and we will get it. I mean I think that's an argument that he's going to make. Renewable energy is very popular in Colorado. Udall faces a lot of the same challenges as other Democrats; they feel pressure in offshore drilling. But, fundamentally, voters supported those issues. I mean, again, we've seen that talk kind of recede a little bit just because there was an offshore drilling discussion. There was a lot of other things, but Udall is still kind of attacking Schaffer on this idea of you're a big oil, pro-oil guy. You don't support renewable energy. And I think whether or not the tax credits come through that's going to be a talking point for the remainder of the election.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, finally, the Oregon Senate race. Very interesting because the Republican candidate there, Gordon Smith, has sort of been going against the Republican Party when it comes to environment and energy issues. Is that going to end up costing him the election?
Alex Kaplun: That's a very sort of tough race to read. I mean Oregon is probably going to vote Democratic in the presidential race. It somewhat leans Democratic, it's not sort of an overly blue state, but it is a Democratic state. So I think Gordon Smith does need to kind of move towards the middle and he's done that in large part on energy policy issues. He came out, he didn't support the climate change bill that was on the Senate floor this year per se, but he did say he supports the idea out of a cap-and-trade legislation. So the attack from the Democrats is kind of don't believe the hype. Gordon Smith is a Republican. He's a Bush Republican. He's trying to move toward the middle. Whether or not voters believe him, I guess remains to be seen. I mean that's kind of a dead heat race and I think a lot of it is going to come down to whether these independent voters in Oregon who have some concern for environmental issues will ultimately buy where Gordon Smith is on these issues.
Monica Trauzzi: We've been focusing on congressional races here, but if we're talking about politics we have to talk about the VP debate that's on Thursday night. With Palin's heavy oil and gas background, where do you expect the energy discussion to go during the debate? And more broadly, handicap it for us. What do you think is going to happen?
Alex Kaplun: I think Palin, regardless of whether she's asked a lot of questions on it or not, is going to try to talk about energy. I mean that's one of the issues where she certainly has a lot of familiarity with and can talk about it with a certain level of expertise. Certainly, as we've seen over the last week, more so than some other issues. So she's certainly going to try to get that into the debate. The thing with Bidden is that he suddenly got a lot of attention, these comments about coal where he sort of said that basically he doesn't want to build any coal plants in the United States. I mean that's not an issue that Palin has dealt with per se, but she can kind of wrap it up, generally drawing a contrast between her and the Democratic ticket on energy. I do think one thing to watch out for is that she does need to be kind of careful because there's a few energy issues where she's very different from John McCain. I mean she's still sort of moving toward endorsing cap and trade, but she still is sort of giving kind of vague answers on climate change. And, ultimately, vice presidential debates are still about the ticket itself. You don't want to say anything that's going to kind of undermine your presidential candidate. So I think she needs to be very careful about exactly what she says on climate change and to a somewhat lesser extent ANWR, although I don't think it's quite as a hot topic issue.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it there. Thanks for your insight as usual.
Alex Kaplun: Thanks.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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