DENVER — The Keystone XL pipeline is coming back to haunt Democratic Sen. Mark Udall at an inconvenient moment.
Udall is one of a half-dozen Senate Democrats facing difficult reelection battles as events conspire to push President Obama’s much-delayed pipeline decision to the forefront in a critical election year.
The difference? The other Senate Democrats are enthusiastically onboard with TransCanada’s proposed $5.4 billion pipeline, which polls show enjoys strong public support, while Udall alone is withholding his endorsement.
President Obama is coming under pressure to help at-risk Senate Democratic incumbents by approving the pipeline, but even if he does so before the Nov. 4 election, it may not help Udall, said GOP strategist Dick Wadhams.
“Udall has put himself in a no-win situation,” said Wadhams, former head of the Colorado Republican Party. “If President Obama approves the pipeline, I think that even further isolates Mark Udall to the left.”
On the other hand, if the president either rejects the pipeline or takes no action, then Udall faces a scenario where he’s opposing a popular jobs-creating project and “he’s sticking with Obama, who has a 60 percent disapproval rating in Colorado,” said Wadhams.
In fact, Udall voted against a non-binding resolution last year in support of the pipeline, even though fellow Colorado Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet voted for it. Wadhams called the vote “bewildering.”
“I’m not sure why he [Udall] voted the way he did, other than he really believes in his vote, which really puts him out of the mainstream,” said Wadhams. “He had political cover from Bennet to vote against it. Even then he didn’t do it.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, argue that Democrats have everything to lose and nothing to gain by backing Keystone, noting that key party constituencies such as younger voters and urbanites are much less likely to support Keystone.
“If the Democrats look at this the other way, they get very little out of approving Keystone,” said Jamie Henn, spokesman for environmental group 350.org. “Big oil is still going to spend mostly for Republicans and spend against them, and they’re going to lose a lot. They’re going to lose a lot of enthusiasm from young voters.”
Udall is strongly identified with the climate-change movement, which has drawn a line in the sand on Keystone, saying it would encourage fossil-fuel development. While the project would provide a boost for the economy, green groups argue that it would worsen global warming by pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Even with a tough reelection battle looming, Udall hasn’t backed away from the issue. He’s one of 28 Democrats slated to participate in the Senate Climate Action Task Force’s all-night talkathon Monday on climate change.
He also attended a San Francisco fundraiser last month sponsored by billionaire Tom Steyer, who has vowed to spend $100 million leading up to the November election to campaign for candidates running on a climate change agenda.
The Keystone XL pipeline is emerging as a campaign issue that isn’t likely to go away before Nov. 4. Secretary of State John Kerry has 60 days to offer a recommendation on the project following the release Jan. 31 of an exhaustive State Department environmental review.
After that, there’s no timeline for the president to make a decision. Even though an approval would likely help Senate Democrats in a tough election year, several analysts, including Wadhams, say they believe Obama will continue to stonewall.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to Keystone XL, facts don’t seem to matter – what is dictating policy is environmental alarmism,” said Cato Institute scholar Paul Knappenberger in a March 2 article. “That’s why the pipeline’s permitting process has been drawn out for more than five years and counting. This all points to a slow, painful death for the Keystone XL pipeline–a death not at the hands of good science, but rather from political gamesmanship.”