WASHINGTON — When Rep. Scott Tipton was given the chance to ask his Democratic opponent a question during their debate on Sept. 8, the Cortez Republican did not open with a question about the Affordable Care Act or hot-button cultural issues.
Tipton opened with a question about his rival’s position on building an oil pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas.
“Would you have voted for the Keystone pipeline?” Tipton asked Sal Pace, a Democratic state representative. Pace equivocated. “Uh, I think the, uh, line from Oklahoma to Texas makes sense absolutely,” he said.
Pace’s answer suggested he opposed building the pipeline through Nebraska, a position that numerous environmental organizations have adopted.
Less than two weeks later, Tipton voted for legislation to stop what coal interest groups have called the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” It included prohibitions on the federal government’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and limits on federal mining regulations. The vote was 233-175.
Among the supporters of the Coal Miner Employment and Domestic Energy Infrastructure Protection Act were Mike Coffman of Lone Tree, Cory Gardner of Yuma, and Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, the other three House Republicans from Colorado. Nineteen House Democrats also voted for the bill. By contrast, only 13 House Republicans crossed the aisle to oppose it.
Colorado’s three House Democrats — Diana DeGette of Denver, Jared Polis of Boulder, and Ed Perlmutter of Lakewood — also voted against Coal Miner Employment Act. While none of their offices issued press releases about the measure, House Democratic leaders criticized the bill’s lack of environmental protections.
“What about the war on our health that allows so much pollution in our society?” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in an interview.
A sizable plurality of Americans do not share Waxman’s position, however. Forty-nine percent of Americans said they prioritize economic growth over environmental protection, according to a Gallup survey in March. By contrast, just forty-one percent said protecting the environment was more important.
While the gap was even larger last year, it is consistent with figures from the last four years that show Americans believe growing the economy should trump protecting the environment. And Republicans have noticed.
GOP strategists believe that the party’s opposition to cap-and-trade climate legislation enabled it to reclaim majority control of the House two years ago.
“I think Republicans have hammered home for the last two years that Americans should be energy independent and not have to take high gas prices and that this has paid off at the polls and with voters,” Ron Bonjean, an informal adviser to House and Senate Republican leaders, said in an interview.
The public’s attitude on energy represents a rare political advantage for Republicans. On several high-profile issues, Americans are closer to the national Democratic Party than the Grand Old Party. The public gives an edge to Democrats on their ability to handle foreign policy, Medicare, and education, according to polls.
Energy used to be another issue that favored Democrats. From 1985 to early 2008, more Americans said they favored protecting the environment than growing the economy. But public attitudes shifted four years ago and have reversed. As Gallup noted in March, at least half of Americans 30 or older, conservatives, and Republicans prioritize economic growth.
Gallup attributes the shift in public sentiment to the recession, which caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, homes, and retirement savings. Republicans criticize the Obama administration for making things worse by, among other things, imposing burdensome regulations on oil and coal.
After the House of Representatives’ vote on Sept. 21, Rep. Lamborn explained his vote this way. “Even if it’s not a perfect bill, it’s a huge improvement on the status quo. We have an administration that has declared war on coal,” he said. Lamborn cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules that require and would require coal-burning plants to reduce their amount of mercury and particulate matter emissions.
As a result, Republicans said that coal companies have been forced to lay off employees.
Alpha Natural Resources announced last week it would to 1,200 employees at eight mines, and an industry analysis released earlier this month noted that more than 200 coal plants, including 11 in Colorado, are scheduled to be shuttered or converted as a result of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations and falling natural-gas prices.
Democratic leaders counter that coal executives have themselves to blame. “From an economist’s point of view, the lack of regulations has hurt their workforce because they get sick or don’t want to work in the mines,” Waxman said in an interview.
Blame aside, the issue terrain has shifted generally in Republicans’ favor.
High gas prices,the Keystone oil pipeline, and coal regulations have replaced solar energy and green-collar jobs as campaign issues. “Certainly Republicans are making better arguments,” Jessica Taylor, a senior political analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report, said in an interview.
Seeing an issue that favors them, Republicans have attempted to press their advantage.
The Coal Miner Employment Act is one example. The House Committee on Natural Resources approved the bill in February, and House GOP leaders scheduled the bill for a vote on the last day of the session before the Nov. 6 election.
Taylor said Republican congressional leaders hope their candidates in several races can benefit from the vote. She said Republican challengers in the North Dakota and Montana Senate races as well as Tipton could gain traction. “It’s something they can use over all: (streamlining regulations on energy) helps the economy and allows us to make energy at home,” she said.
Democrats have responded by criticizing Romney and and some congressional Republicans for opposing the extension of a wind power subsidy.
“Letting the wind production tax credit lapse would be irresponsible,” Colorado Senator Mark Udall said on the Senate floor in late July. “The credit equals jobs. We should pass it as soon as possible.”
But Republican candidates are not backing down. A week before his Oct. 3 debate with President Obama in Denver, Romney opened a bus tour Wednesday through the battleground state of Ohio — in the coal-rich southern part of the state.
The Romney campaign also launched a new coal-themed ad on Thursday, dubbed “Bankrupt.” The ad can be viewed below.