Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is attempting to broker a deal that would persuade Polis to pull his proposed anti-fracking initiatives, but if the governor can’t get it done, every Democratic candidate will face pressure to take a stand this year on an issue that has badly divided the state party.
That starts with the Democrat Udall, who’s already under fire for refusing to stake out a position on whether to construct the Keystone XL pipeline.
“It is a lose-lose situation for him,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist. “He loses either way. There is no way out of this issue.”
If Udall supports Polis’s anti-fracking initiatives, he risks being tarred as an environmental extremist willing to sacrifice one of the state’s biggest industries and drive jobs out of Colorado.
On the other hand, if he opposes the anti-fracking initiatives, as Hickenlooper has done, Udall could lose the support of the environmental movement, a key component of his base. The League of Conservation Voters is already spending $1 million in attack ads against Udall’s likely opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner.
“It’s clear that it’s going to be a huge controversial ballot initiative, with Democrats on both sides. It’s very high profile, and again, it will be the first time we’ve had that kind of division in the party for a very long time,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “I think that it will be harder and harder for Udall not to take a position.”
So far Hickenlooper’s attempt to strike a bargain between industry officials and Polis has come up dry. Those involved in the negotiations say it’s increasingly likely that the oil and gas industry will take its chances with the voters rather than give up the store to appease Polis, according to the Denver Business Journal’s Ed Sealover.
“I think there’s almost a desperation on the part of rational Democrats and on the part of Hickenlooper who understand this is not good for Colorado and it’s not good for the Democratic Party,” said Wadhams. “But I honestly don’t see how something is crafted because I still don’t think Gov. Hickenlooper will be able to satisfy Jared Polis.”
The state’s Democratic Party establishment is firmly opposed to the anti-fracking initiatives, but so far that hasn’t dissuaded Polis. A multi-millionaire, he’s rich enough to fund his own campaigns without the help of the party’s fundraisers.
Polis has shown little concern for the plight of candidates like Udall trying to walk a fine line between the natural-gas industry and environmental movement. Polis-backed Coloradans for Local Control filed the first batch of anti-fracking initiatives March 3, a week after multiple media outlets reported that Gardner would enter the race.
The second group of filings came on March 20, after at least one poll showed Udall and Gardner running neck and neck.
“It says a lot that even after Gardner gets into the race, Polis does these things,” said state Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray).
Gardner has already challenged Udall to disavow any statewide initiative aimed at banning fracking, saying the Democrat’s reluctance to oppose such a measure has “put nearly 100,000 Colorado jobs at risk of being completely eliminated.”
Then again, some Democrats are convinced that support from national environmental groups will be enough to overcome the opposition of the oil and gas industry, which has for months waged a high-profile media blitz in support of hydraulic fracturing.
“The Democrats seem to think that it will bring out environmentalists and activists, and that assuming Udall is not punished for some of his ambivalence on the position, he will be fine,” said Ciruli.
RBI Strategies, a consultant for Coloradans for Local Control, released a survey Wednesday to Fox31 showing that 51 percent of those surveyed are more likely to support a candidate “who supports greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing . . . by local communities than is currently provided by the state,” according to the station.
Brophy said Polis might have had another motivation for commissioning the survey, namely intraparty self-defense.
“It sounds like he’s getting the crap kicked out of him by other Democrats, and so he has the poll written in such a way to show that he’s not hurting the Democratic Party,” said Brophy.
So far none of the proposed anti-fracking initiatives has qualified for signature-gathering as they await a challenge before the Colorado Supreme Court. The measures must gather 86,000 valid signatures from registered state voters by Aug. 4 to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot.