Reporters Roundtable

E&E reporters talk about the races they'll be keeping a close eye on this Election Day

With the midterm elections just days away, several key races are just too close to call. Candidates around the country are making their final push to gain support from voters. During today's OnPoint, E&E Daily reporters Alex Kaplun and Ben Geman talk about how gains by the Democrats could affect energy and environmental issues. They discuss the future of offshore drilling legislation, climate change policy, fuel economy, and the 2007 farm bill. Kaplun and Geman also talk about how energy and environmental issues played a role in several campaigns this year.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today for a reporter's roundtable are Greenwire reporters Ben Geman and Alex Kaplun. Thanks for joining me guys.

Ben Geman: Sure.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, heading into the final stretch before Election Day, how is energy policy playing into the overall election? And are you seeing it as you initially thought you would, because we've been hearing a lot about it this year?

Ben Geman: Right, well, it's not as big a deal as I thought it would have been some months ago. And the main reason for that is because gasoline prices have really slid. And that was looking like it was going to be an absolutely red-hot issue. It's still there, but the decline in prices probably have taken some of the air out of that a little bit. That said, you know you hear candidates frequently accusing one another up being too close to the oil industry, for example. So that element still very much is there.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, what's your assessment of how things are looking for the Democrats?

Alex Kaplun: I mean if you talk to Democrats they're very, very optimistic. There's some projections that have them certainly picking up the House. I think it would be a huge upset if we don't have a Democratic House come Nov. 8. There's some people that are saying that as many as 30 or 40 seats, so we might have a total flip where Democrats have a 15 or so seat majority in the House. In the Senate it's a little dicier. I think we're headed towards somewhere on a 50-50 Senate. So some of the best case scenarios have Democrats at 51 or 52 seats, but they would really need to win in places where they're certainly competitive, but in red states. Sort of the worst-case scenario for Democrats probably a 48 seat Senate. Either way they're going to pick up a bunch of seats, and they're very optimistic there's going to be this sort of huge wave across the country and they're really going to sweep into power in both chambers.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, lots of attack ads this year in races throughout the country. The GOP is warning that if Democrats take over the House gas tax hikes are just around the corner. At the same time, like you said earlier, gas prices are much lower now than they were earlier this summer. This is in the Republicans favor of course. How important is the gas issue to people who are going to be heading to the polls on Election Day?

Ben Geman: Well, I think some of that is going to depend on how successfully largely Democratic candidates are able to tie their opponents to this what seems to be some discontent with this sort of oil or the energy industry in general. I mean you've seen ads, for example, in the race in Virginia. You've seen ads in the Senate race in Virginia between Webb and Allen. You've seen some ads in several other races as well, Corker and Ford in Tennessee, where the Democrat has said my opponent raises a lot of money from the oil industry, is very close to them. So, you know, it's not one of the top themes, but that I think sort of could have some resonance.

Alex Kaplun: And I think one of the things with gas prices, there's a couple of factors. One of the things we've seen is that Republicans haven't gotten a lot of mileage out of the economy actually being pretty good. Part of the reason for that is that people sort of tie gas prices very closely to how they view their economic situation. I mean gas prices are low, but there was still a lot of pessimism about the economy, about gas prices throughout the summer. And it seems to still kind of be lingering a little bit. Another thing that's happened is that Democrats have actually done a pretty good job sort of making gas policy, energy policy bigger than just how much money you're spending at the pump. They made it a security issue, which obviously sort of ties to the whole Iraq theme. So it's something that's been lingering a little bit beyond just how much consumers are actually paying when they fill up.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, I want to focus specifically on the House for a moment. In California's 11th District things have been heating up between House Resources Committee Chairman Pombo and Jerry McNerney. Huge amounts of money are being thrown around in this race. Why is this race so important? And what could it mean for resources?

Alex Kaplun: Yeah, I mean this is one of those races that became fairly competitive late in the cycle. I think it's one of those races that shows that the battlefield is really tilted toward the Democrats some in that this is not a place where they thought they'd be competitive, where they really should be competitive in most election cycles, but they clearly are. I mean the reason this race has gotten a lot of national attention is in large part because the environmental groups have made it such a big deal. They've spent a bunch of money in that race. They've made it their top priority. And they really sort of kept actually the Democratic campaign going through the summer when they weren't getting a lot of support from the national party. I mean I think this race is also important that you have a committee chairman, as many as Republicans as are vulnerable this year, is that there's not a whole lot of Republicans that are at the very, very top of the leadership. There's a couple of people in sort of high-ranking positions here and there, but not a lot of the committee chairs. Certainly if Pombo loses, a lot of other Republicans and resources will probably lose too. And you could really see a dramatically different committee come next year.

Ben Geman: Yeah. There's one interesting thing in addition to that about the Pombo race, is if he indeed loses, I'd be a little surprised, but if Pombo loses I think the sort of amount a kind of post race spin and analysis is going to be fascinating to watch. A big question is going to be did he lose because voters were turned off by his stances, which environmentalists have attacked relentlessly, by his stances on energy and environmental issues or would you chalk up his loss to sort of a more sort of broad Democratic tide, plus some real demographic changes in that district? I was at an event a few days ago where you had a representative -- or one of the top officials with the business industry political action committee. And she sort of said to several people in the energy industry, look, if Pombo loses don't let the environmentalists take credit for this and don't see it in that light. So I think there's going to be a real push me-pull me, again, if he does lose, about why he lost and how related it was to his views on the environment.

Monica Trauzzi: And let's talk about the environment for a moment, because according to a recent Los Angeles Times Bloomberg poll 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the way the Bush administration is handling the environment. But in the same poll, 47 percent also said that the environment would not be a factor when they head to the polls on Election Day. So the climate change issue doesn't seem to quite have hit home yet with the American public. What are your expectations for Congress' climate change agenda if the Democrats take over?

Ben Geman: Well, that's a really good question. On the first part of your question, I mean I think this is sort of part of a trend in that voters are concerned when you ask them about energy and environmental issues, but it doesn't quite make it into the top, top tier of issues that people sort of base their vote on in races. Now, as far as the climate change agenda, there are some things where there's a fair level of -- smaller things, there's a fair level of unity on. I mean funding for technologies to sort of better energy production in a way that doesn't have such a carbon impact. There's very little dispute on that one. As far as whether or not there would be any major policy shift to come out of this Congress, one thing that I think is very important to remember is that regardless of who wins the margins are going to be quite narrow. And so in the House I think you will definitely see a push for some type of mandatory program, some type of mandatory cap-and-trade program, which has been a complete nonstarter in the House in the past. Whether that could get anywhere is something that's really up in the air. One little side note about that is that I think John Dingell, who would be the Democratic chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I think it's probably fair to say he's somewhat more moderate and conservative on this issue than perhaps the presumptive Democratic Party leadership in the House. So how much any sort of tough carbon program could get through his committee, I think would be a very interesting question.

Monica Trauzzi: And if Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker of the House what's that going to mean for energy policy?

Ben Geman: I think it's going to vary from policy to policy. I mean one thing to look for is, of course, going to be how much oversight is conducted on things like oil industry royalty issues and that sort of thing. I don't think we would see any sweeping -- anything to the effect like a big gas tax or a windfall profit tax. I'd be amazed if something like that happened. There are a few other pressure points though that I think we could see some legislative efforts. One of them would be vehicle fuel efficiency, which has been a really tough thing to get through either chamber. I think there would certainly be an effort on that, but, again, one thing to watch is how potential Chairman Dingell and Energy and Commerce would address that issue, because he has not been a fan of strong CAFE increases.

Alex Kaplun: But I think sort of more broadly looking at energy policy, I mean one of the things that could happen is if you have a Democratic House, and especially a Democratic Senate, is Democrats are going to need to show that they need to govern. They have an agenda. They might win a bunch of seats this election. I don't think anyone thinks they're winning these seats because they've put any great plan out there. And one of the things I've heard is that in one area, where there's really an opportunity to have some kind of consensus to move major legislation, is energy policy. It's been pointed out there is a lot, a lot of differences on key points, but there is sort of a basic framework and basic sort of idea that we support renewables, we support lessening dependence on foreign oil. You hear that from both parties. And sort of building on that, there is sort of room there for a Pelosi or a Majority Leader Reid, to start building something to show the American people that we're not going to spend the next two years in oversight investigations and sort of blocking anything that the President wants to do. We actually have a plan. We're actually going to try to move legislation.

Ben Geman: I think that's a great point that Alex makes. And I think one arena where we might see that play out is the 2007 farm bill, because one of these areas where there is, in fact, a lot of agreement in the Congress is support for biofuels, ethanol and such. And once the farm bill debate gets going in earnest I think we're going to see a lot of attention to what type of expansion of ethanol and other biofuel production they can sort of wring out of that bill.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, I'd also like to talk about the Senate for a moment. If the Democrats want to take over in the Senate things are basically riding on Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee and New Jersey. And you've been watching the Missouri Senate race closely. It's McCaskill versus Talent in that race. Why is this race so important and where is that standing right now?

Alex Kaplun: I mean Missouri is one of those states that has sort of historically -- what happens in Missouri very closely resembles what happens in the rest of the country. You mentioned there are four races. I mean Missouri is one of those states that's -- whichever party wins that state is probably going to have control of the Senate. It's a race that's been tight all the way through. It's been on virtually every poll you see. It's within the margin of error. And I think that's going to be one of those races that shows just how much progress the Democrats have made in terms of moving so-called red state voters. The state that very slightly leans towards the Republicans, if you see McCaskill winning there and beating Jim Talent, who you know you talk to election experts, Jim Talent might not have come in necessarily as the strongest candidate, but he's run a very smart campaign. He hasn't made any mistakes. And if McCaskill can still win in that kind of environment, that's going to show the Democrats are probably going to have a pretty good night.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben, offshore drilling is not exactly an issue that breaks down along party lines at this point. If the Democrats take control over one or both chambers what is that going to mean for drilling legislation?

Ben Geman: Well, I think one thing that's probably safe to say, although I could very easily be proven wrong, but I'd be very surprised on this score, is that any type of very, very broad relaxation or scuttling of current offshore leasing bans, such as we saw in the legislation that went through the House during the current session authored by Pombo, I think that's just gone. I mean I think they can't get that through the Senate now. So, again, any type of major broad plan on offshore drilling, to do it on perhaps the Atlantic Coast, up on the Atlantic coast or elsewhere, very, very difficult to get through. Whether there could be any expansion of offshore drilling at all, I think some of that is going to be driven by energy prices or perhaps if there's something like another hurricane. I mean if we have a huge price spike or perhaps a huge supply disruption or, you know, a major supply disruption from perhaps an unstable producer, I think the calls for that would get louder. But I don't see a huge amount of daylight for major changes in that policy. I also think that it's -- a couple of people I've spoken to hold out some hope/belief that perhaps there could be a sort of broader deal struck that marries a modest domestic production component to it with some of the other things that are some very traditional Democratic and to some extent bipartisan, but other priorities. Like more on renewable fuels, more on alternative energy, more on efficiency, that sort of thing.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. Final question. We're almost out of time. Which races are the two of you going to be following the most closely on election night? Alex?

Alex Kaplun: I mean I think luckily for reporters a lot of the key races are in the Eastern and Central time zone. The two states that I believe close the polls the earliest are Indiana and Kentucky. Those are kind of red states that have competitive races. If you're seeing a bunch of districts in those states go Democratic, you can pretty much tell probably how the night's going to go. It probably means a very good night for the Democrats.

Monica Trauzzi: Ben?

Ben Geman: Pombo. That's going to be the big one to watch, yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Great. Thanks for joining me guys.

Ben Geman: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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