Gulf Oil Spill Politics Spreads Across Country

Political maneuvering continues to flow through races around the nation.

ByAlexander Pepper
July 16, 2010, 4:09 PM

July 20, 2010 -- As BP promises progress on the oil spill, the political maneuvering set off by the catastrophe continues to flow through to campaigns around the nation.

In states directly affected by the spill, many incumbent politicians have seized on the opportunity created by this crisis.

"They've used it to political advantage while doing their jobs, frankly," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report. "It's a great and unfortunate but unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills."

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, has been thrust into the national media spotlight as a result of the spill's effect on Florida's Gulf Coast. Crist has called a special session of the state legislature to consider amending the state constitution to ban offshore oil drilling.

Critics have questioned the need for such an amendment, as Florida law already bans offshore drilling.

Marco Rubio, who defeated Crist in the Republican primary, has called the session "a blatant political move meant more to protect the governor's political career than our beaches."

Rubio's campaign, lacking the publicity platform given by Crist's office, released a Web video this week using local news clips to argue that the session is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

But Crist argued that further constitutional protection is necessary to make it more difficult for future legislatures to overturn the ban.

Louisiana's U.S. Senate race also has been touched by the oil spill. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Louisiana, who broke down during a Congressional hearing on the spill in May, has sparred with incumbent Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, over appropriate legal responses.

In early June, Vitter accused Melancon of supporting the federal moratorium on deepwater drilling imposed by the Obama administration, a charge that Melancon strongly denied. The Democrat has been vocal in opposing the moratorium in the weeks since, saying in an editorial in a Louisiana newspaper that the moratorium "is a predictable Washington-style knee-jerk reaction," that "could result in thousands of workers being laid off and cripple our state's economy."

Vitter and Melancon also have disagreed over the question of liability caps for future incidents. Vitter has co-sponsored a bill that would replace the current $75 million cap on companies' liability for economic damages from an accident with either the company's profit over the last four quarters or $150 million, whichever is greater.

Melancon has attacked the proposal as a bailout for BP and oil companies, although the bill would not affect BP's liability in the current spill. Senate Democrats have proposed eliminating the liability cap altogether.

Offshore drilling has been raised in races far beyond the Gulf, as well.

"It's a good issue to localize in a lot of states," said Duffy. "What you're really telling voters is what happened in the Gulf could happen to us. This is not an issue which is as removed geographically as it appears."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, has called for a permanent ban on offshore drilling on the West Coast, leading her campaign website with a petition on the issue.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, has co-sponsored a bill with Murray and several other senators to enact such a ban.

"We simply cannot afford the risk posed by oil drilling off our magnificent coast," Boxer said while announcing the bill. "Nearly 570,000 jobs and our vital coastal economy would not survive an environmental disaster like the one we're seeing now along the Gulf Coast."

Boxer's Republican opponent, Carly Fiorina, attacked the bill as "political posturing" and an "election year stunt," arguing that the existing moratorium is preferable to a permanent ban because it allows for reevaluation when conditions may have changed.

Rep. Paul Hodes, D-New Hampshire, has sought to attack his possible Republican challengers by raising the specter of drilling off of the New England coast, which currently is banned.

"My Republican opponents need to tell the people of New Hampshire where they stand," said Hodes in a media release. "Would they put New Hampshire's Seacoast region at risk by allowing offshore drilling, or will they stand up to big oil for New Hampshire?"

Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican running for the Senate, has trumpeted his efforts to limit pollution from a BP refinery on Lake Michigan. Kirk, along with many other Illinois politicians, applied pressure in 2007 after federal regulators agreed to increase discharge limits for BP's Whiting refinery.

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat, has disputed Kirk's claims of success.

"Congressman Kirk claims he 'stopped' BP from polluting Lake Michigan," said Jack Darin, president of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, in a release from the Giannoulias campaign. "Unfortunately, nobody 'stopped BP' from polluting our drinking water -- Indiana ignored Kirk's protests and gave BP a permit for the pollution. Sure, he took a boat ride and held a press conference for the cameras, but in the end, big oil won."

The protection of the Great Lakes also has emerged as an issue in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee attacked Republican challenger Ron Johnson for owning stock in BP. Johnson defended the holdings as normal for anyone with an investment portfolio and announced plans to put all of his investments into a blind trust.

Last week, Feingold released a television ad that alleged Johnson supports allowing drilling in the Great Lakes.

"I said no to drilling in our Great Lakes. But one opponent, Ron Johnson, disagrees," says Feingold in the ad. "He's willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies, threatening Wisconsin's economy and a way of life for generations of Wisconsin families."

Johnson has responded with his own ad.

"Ron Johnson opposes drilling in the Great Lakes and Russ Feingold knows it," Johnson said in the spot. "Great Lakes drilling's already illegal and Feingold knows that too, because he voted against the law that protected our lakes."

While Feingold did vote against the larger bill that ultimately codified the ban on drilling in the Great Lakes, he did so because of objections to other provisions of the bill and had co-sponsored efforts to enact such a ban in the past.

Attacks accusing opponents of favoring "big oil" have become common as the spill continues to dominate the news cycle.

Missouri secretary of state and Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan as charged that Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, is too close to oil companies.

Connecticut Senate candidates Linda McMahon, a Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, have sparred over family investments in energy companies, including firms with connections to Iran.

There are risks to invoking the oil spill. Nationally, Democrats have failed to convert the alarm caused by the spill into momentum for cap-and-trade proposals.

In campaigning, Duffy said that candidates must be careful to be "getting caught by voters politicizing it" and displaying "a lack of subtlety."

"The only risk is overstating it or not being truthful about it," Duffy said. "Either not being truthful about your opponent's position or making an allegation that isn't credible. One of the lines in Feingold's ad I thought was a little over the top [was] about when he said that his opponent wanted to hand over the Great Lakes to oil companies. That's not an entirely credible statement."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat facing a challenge from former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, said this week that his campaign erred in referencing the oil spill in a controversial radio ad. The ad, attacking Ehrlich's connections to a firm that has lobbied for oil companies, was criticized for invoking the disaster in the Gulf.

"The ad did mention the fact that oil was coming ashore in the Gulf, probably something the ad didn't need to do and shouldn't have done because it allowed the former governor to claim that we were making claims that he was associated with BP, which we never have," said O'Malley on WTOP radio's "Ask the Governor" program. "What we should not have mentioned was that the oil spill was going on in that ad and that was a tactical mistake that my campaign made."

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