Centrist Democrats who support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline might not get the cold shoulder from green groups this fall.
Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was the latest to buck her party’s leaders when she announced this week she supports construction of the pipeline.
But even though green groups have fought tooth and nail to block the oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. over environmental concerns, they aren’t making the issue into a litmus test for Democratic candidates they consider supporting.
Instead, organizations with environmental priorities are weighing Keystone along with other top environmental issues when deciding who to throw their weight behind.
“It’s public record that we’ve already supported candidates who have said that they are in support of the Keystone pipeline,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. “The action fund has made the strategic conclusion in this cycle to focus on climate change, and, specifically, the president’s climate plan.”
The NRDC has not waded into the Kentucky Senate race, and Taylor-Miesle did not say whether it would support Grimes. But the group's political action committee has raised funds for Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), all of whom have supported building Keystone XL and face tough races this November that could decide control of the Senate.
“As long as they are not preventing the president from acting,” Taylor-Miesle said of those lawmakers.
The NRDC has not supported Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), though, who has gone a step further in calling for congressional action to force Obama’s hand on the pipeline's approval.
The Sierra Club’s Political Committee counts Keystone as one of its priorities but also does not consider it a deal breaker.
“When we consider supporting candidates, we look at their record as a whole from where they stand on protecting our lands and wildlife to stopping Keystone XL to advancing clean energy,” Melissa Williams, the Sierra Club’s national political director, said in a statement.
Williams cited Hagan as a candidate whom Sierra Club supports because of her record on environmental issues, despite her support for Keystone XL.
Sierra Club is currently evaluating the Kentucky and Georgia races and has not yet backed candidates, Williams said.
CREDO SuperPAC, a progressive group affiliated with CREDO Mobile, said Wednesday shortly before Grimes’s announcement that it would spend $500,000 in the race to oppose McConnell.
Even after Grimes’s decision, the group said it would continue with its plans, citing a priority to remove McConnell from office. The pipeline is not CREDO’s top issue, it said.
Grimes, like most leaders endorsing Keystone XL before her, cited job creation in endorsing the pipeline.
“The slow economic recovery and painfully slow drop in unemployment lend special urgency to the jobs that this project would create — more than 10,000 during the construction phase according to estimates and many more thousands indirectly,” Grimes said in a statement. “Putting Americans back to work in good-paying jobs that strengthen the middle class is my top priority and it should be the federal government’s as well.”
With Kentucky’s rural economy dependent on coal, it’s a near necessity for Grimes to endorse pro-energy policies and criticize President Obama’s environmental and energy policies in order to be competitive in the state.
Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, has strongly condemned Obama’s coal policies, saying they could severely hurt the state.
“This administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky’s coal industry, crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs,” she writes on her website.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D), running in West Virginia to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), has also endorsed Keystone XL. Like Kentucky, West Virginia relies heavily on coal.
“Instead of delaying jobs and attacking energy with regulations, we should be investing in a real all of the above approach — including infrastructure like the Keystone pipeline and research like advanced coal technology to support West Virginia energy jobs and American energy independence,” Tennant said in a statement.
Billionaire liberal donor Tom Steyer has set a goal to spend $100 million in the 2014 campaign cycle through his NextGen Climate Action, with some of the money dedicated to candidates who oppose Keystone XL.
But that doesn’t mean that pro-Keystone XL candidates will be shut out.
While NextGen has not yet backed any candidates, Steyer said in a recent interview on C-SPAN that Keystone XL won’t be the deciding factors for donations.
“We’re going to take a holistic view, and try and make sure that the people we support are going to be doing the right thing down the road,” Steyer said.
— Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.
This post was updated at 4 p.m. on April 28.