Why Republicans still bet on pipeline while most Dems roll their eyes

By Manuel Quiñones | 02/24/2015 08:30 AM EST

Republicans seem to be obsessed with Keystone XL.

Republicans seem to be obsessed with Keystone XL.

Approving the oil pipeline from Canada became their first order of business in Congress this year and has been central to the party’s messaging.

"It’s about jobs, it’s about energy, it’s about infrastructure," Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said during her party’s weekly radio address earlier this month, at least the second this year focused on KXL. "It’s about hope," Fallin said. "President Obama was once about that, too."


Republicans and their loyalists are campaigning for Obama to sign the bill, which passed more than a week ago but is just now formally heading to the White House.

"We are certainly engaging very heavily on this issue," said Thomas Fletcher, a policy analyst for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity in a recent podcast about plans to mobilize supporters to pressure the president.

If Republicans are obsessed with KXL, most Democrats are increasingly treating the debate like an annoyance, downplaying any benefits the pipeline could bring.

In recent comments, Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said the KXL’s long-term job impact would be "roughly the same amount of jobs that would be created by opening a new corner fast-food burger joint."

Public opinion has generally been on the Republicans’ side in support of KXL. But analysts aren’t sure the GOP will see significant benefits or Democrats any fallout from the positions they’ve staked out on KXL.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, a veteran of the McCain-Palin campaign, said the pipeline debate is "always a good go-to for the GOP, and it’s not one that’s going to go away."

O’Connell, frequent commentator on energy issues, said redundancy is often key to political messaging. "Keystone is not just a pipeline," he said, "it represents a larger discussion Republicans want to have on energy security and jobs."

Even though some Democrats support KXL, Republican energy strategist Mike McKenna said voters now identify the GOP as the pro-pipeline party. He says they see the Democrats as siding with environmentalists over other key constituencies, like labor unions.

"It is an odd policy choice for them, and places them crossways with both what used to be an important constituency and American consumers," McKenna said. "It reinforces the idea that the D’s care more about the environmental crazies than they do about energy security.

"I think a lot of that is already embedded in the mental architecture of voters, which is why the Democrats don’t seem too worried. But they should be," he said.

Middle-class votes

Democratic strategist Rick Ridder, head of Denver-based RBI Strategies & Research, said Republican support for KXL may not always invoke positive thoughts among voters.

To many Americans, he said "it’s simply an indication that whatever oil and gas wants, it will get." Similarly, to many people, "it looks like whatever obstacles the conservation movement is going to put forth, the Obama forces will bow down to."

While the GOP sees KXL as an example of promoting energy abundance, infrastructure and trade, greens see the pipeline as an example of inaction against the threat of climate change.

Ridder, pointing to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, said it can make political sense to be tough on the oil industry. "It is very much very clear that voters know what happened" in the Gulf, he said, "and really don’t want to have this in their community."

Ridder said he has advised clients to focus on the potential issues with KXL that could divide Republicans. And many Democrats have done just that by framing their opposition to KXL legislation as defending the review process, expressing concern for landowner rights and wanting to prevent spills.

Beyond polls showing support for KXL, one recent ABC News/Washington Post survey indicated the public also supported waiting for the Obama administration to scrutinize the proposal (Greenwire, Jan. 20).

Just yesterday the League of Conservation Voters released a survey by Hart Research Associates, a firm with Democratic ties, showing that many respondents did not consider KXL a top issue.

Plus, it found that if Obama rejected KXL, most respondents wanted Congress to move on with other priorities rather than try to override the president’s veto.

"The clear and decisive message to Congress from this poll is that Americans want to move on to other issues once President Obama makes his decision on the pipeline," according to a memo accompanying the survey.

It also said, "From a political perspective, playing offense on renewable energy, clean water and environmental protection trumps the arguments in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline."

Still, the problem for Democrats, O’Connell said, is that arguments in favor of KXL appeal to "white, working class voters." It’s a section of the population that is trending to the GOP and turned to Republicans in a big way during the midterm elections.

Similarly, Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said KXL appeals to "moderate, independent voters." Madonna said Democrats pooh-poohing KXL is "not going to help them with their white middle-class strategy."

Some Democrats from energy or swing states have tried to insulate themselves from the fallout by being vocal in their support for KXL.

"So the Democrats have to be a little concerned they don’t get caught on the wrong side of that," Madonna said. "Republicans have to be concerned they don’t overplay their hand."

Economy up, oil prices down

The reason Republicans risk over-playing their hand on KXL is because Americans may see them as too focused on one project rather than on a broader range of issues.

O’Connell said of Republicans, "They have to get beyond Keystone in terms of expanding their arguments in terms of energy security."

Many GOP lawmakers supported taking up the pipeline bill now because of bipartisan support and to clear the way for other issues. And Republican members are still divided on what to do, if anything, when the president vetoes it.

"I don’t know they can play the Keystone pipeline card forever, being the Republicans, particularly as gas prices go down, unemployment drops," Ridder said. "It’s a very difficult game to play."

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration energy aide and now a senior fellow with the U.S. German Marshall Fund, said that while the debate remains a rallying cry with the base of each party, the general urgency had dissipated.

"At $100 oil and $4 gasoline, Keystone had a measure of hot button appeal to independents and moderates," said Bledsoe, "but that political prominence has fallen with the price of oil."

He added, "The administration’s proposed opening of new offshore U.S. leases from Virginia to Georgia was an implicit if subtle contrast between U.S. production and Canadian oil sands, and in part calculated to show that they are pro-oil development."

Madonna said, "It’s not one of those cutting-edge issues for most voters. Overall, do I think it’s an important issue? Yes. Do I think it’s a defining one? No."

The KXL bill will likely head to the White House today, sources said, with both houses of Congress in session and ready to respond to whatever the president does.

"I have been a little perplexed by the process and the way it has unfolded," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest yesterday. "I understand Congress passed this bill like 10 days ago."

Asked whether the president would veto the bill, Earnest said, "He will." He added, "I would not anticipate a lot of drama and fanfare."

But even if Obama vetoes the legislation this week, he could end up approving the project.

"Is anybody going to remember this in November of 2016?" Ridder asked.

Still, a presidential rejection or more delays in the administration making up its mind could still make KXL an important focus of yet another election cycle, and Republicans then are prepared to claim the upper hand.