Drilling Issue Could Kill Dems' Senate Hopes
Democrats didn’t converge on Denver just to watch Barack Obama make the Mile High sermon on the mount: While Obama gunned for blue-collar voters in a key swing state, the DNC also had the opportunity to give a boost to a key Senate recruit on that candidate’s home turf. And after Rep. Mark Udall ascended the palatial stage to warm up the Invesco crowd for Obama’s acceptance speech, he grandly declared, "This election is not about Barack Obama, Joe Biden or me, it's about you."
But the real drama in the contentious Colorado Senate race is not being played out on a stadium podium. It’s in the cutthroat ads that Colorado voters can’t miss even if they tried, the sparring debates, the relentless bickering over who really voted for what and when -- and the bubbling crude. And the key issue of this Senate race is not "you": It’s support for drilling that could swing this key Senate race, and not in the direction that the politically correct energy barometer might have it.
The Democrat hoping to replace retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard seems to have learned that turning his back on such a lifeblood could bode poorly in a swing state that has a solidly negative view of "Big Oil" -- but is concerned about what happens if the wells stop flowing. A Rocky Mountain News/CBS 4 News poll of 500 registered Colorado voters conducted Aug. 11-13 revealed 66 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the oil and gas industry, yet 57 percent of those surveyed were concerned about not enough drilling in the state.
Perhaps driven by the rumbles of empty gas tanks, or the realization that the state’s views aren’t so shale-black and white, or the need for another weapon in his campaign arsenal (that same Rocky/CBS poll had Udall six points ahead of Schaffer in a seesaw race), Congressman Mark Udall reversed his position on domestic drilling last month in a flip that reaped national headlines early in the horse race.
“I've always said we have to have responsible drilling," Udall, who has a strong environmentalist House record that has included votes against drilling and refinery expansion, said during the news conference announcing his new stance. "I'm not opposed to drilling. … I've been opposed to (the) Bush-Cheney line that we can drill our way out of this challenge."
But will this seem too little, too late, or perhaps too insincere for Colorado voters? Already the Senate campaign is dirtier than drill-bit mud, and political watchers across the state expect the battle to get even more brutal. Udall’s challenger, onetime Congressman Bob Schaffer, who resigned his vice president position at CHx Capital, LLC/Aspect Energy, LLC, at the end of last year to focus on the Senate race, has been dubbed “Big Oil Bob” by both the Udall campaign and liberal bloggers.
When the pair debated in mid-July the fight was over development of oil-shale extraction, technology abandoned in the 1980s amid low oil prices. Udall joined with Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar (D) last year in inserting an amendment into a spending bill that kept the government from being able to authorize commercial leases for oil-shale development. “This is not an argument about raping or pillaging Colorado,” Schaffer argued during the debate in which Udall said he wouldn’t allow the promising exploration region of northwestern Colorado to become “a national sacrifice zone.”
But it’s not as if oil and gas are pariahs in a state known for its wells as well as its protection of nature.
Colorado issued a record 6,368 drilling permits in 2007; the majority of these were for natural gas exploration. In the first six months of this year, Colorado natural gas wells produced 434 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than six million barrels of oil, according to records of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Two-thirds of Colorado counties contain oil and gas wells, including a heavy corridor up Interstate 25 leading out of Denver and up toward the Wyoming border. Weld County, which encompasses a large swath of that stretch, had more than 13,000 of the state's nearly 36,000 active wells operating in July.
Black gold aside, any assessment of whether the Republican Party can keep its Senate seat has to take into consideration how the Republicans stumbled in the past. The state opened the decade with a popular GOP governor -- Bill Owens -- who had been elected to office by a razor-thin margin in 1998, but ran away with the re-election by a record margin in 2002. Allard and Republican convert Benjamin Nighthorse Campbell kept a GOP lock on Colorado’s Senate seats. The Democrats hadn’t controlled both houses of the Colorado legislature since 1960.
Then Salazar, whose rural background served to even woo some conservatives, beat late entrant Pete Coors, who was backed by Owens, to fill the retiring Campbell’s Senate seat. In 2004, well-financed Democrats turned the tide in the legislature by ekeing out majorities in both houses. But Owens reacted to this by aligning with the other side of the aisle to reform -- in the form of Referendum C, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which capped spending and aimed to curb government growth. This predictably angered the conservative base.
When Owens’ retirement rolled around, Democrat Bill Ritter handily defeated Bob Beauprez, a congressman and the recipient of Owens’ endorsement. All told, the Republican Party has taken a beating from the voters, and only a house in order can bring the base back.
But the Udall/Schaffer race may flesh the red and blue out of the purple state as they drill each other on the oil debacle. With voters more concerned about the economy and energy, and seeking candidates who hold fast on those core issues, the GOP has an opening for redemption with its base, and the Democrats could find themselves facing pandering accusations from the environmentalist wing while needing to appeal to a blue-collar base.
There will be continued debate over where Colorado fits in oil and gas exploration, even amid the hue and cry for alternative fuels. And there will -- among the glut of Udall/Schaffer commercials accusing each other of everything but ritual animal sacrifice -- be fireworks as the issue promises to shape a critical Senate race in a presidential swing state.
There will, as Daniel Plainview said, be blood.