Biden’s oil stance jars Democrats in tough races

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Joe Biden’s vow to phase out the oil industry at Thursday’s debate creates a problem for Democratic candidates in red-leaning states and swing House districts as it gives Republicans an opening to tie them to their party’s left wing.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in April of last year that he wanted to make the 2020 election “a referendum on socialism.”

That strategy ran into a big problem when Democrats nominated Biden, a candidate who developed a reputation as a moderate during his decades in Washington, for president.

Now Biden’s blunt affirmation that “yes” he “would transition” when asked by President Trump on Thursday whether he would “close down the oil industry,” gives Republican candidates ammo.

“Biden has rolled out nothing short of an entirely left-wing economic agenda and has never been forced to defend it on a public stage until Thursday,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and McConnell’s former chief of staff.

Holmes said Biden’s comments on oil could have “profound effect” in states such as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas and others where there is what he called “a culture of energy production.”

“I’ve always thought that reminding the American people what economic policy came out of the Obama-Biden administration is a powerful reelection message for Donald Trump,” he added.

Biden’s remarks will give Republicans a chance to put the economy and regulation in the spotlight for the final 10 days of the campaign, something they’ve wanted to do for months.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) released a new television ad in Maine attempting to tie Democratic candidate Sara Gideon to “liberal out-of-staters” who “want a green new deal raising taxes on home heating oil.”

Biden walked right into the Republican talking points by pledging to end federal subsidies for the oil industry. One such subsidy, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is especially popular in Maine.

Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist, characterized Biden’s comments as a “small fumble.”

“You don’t necessarily want to say anything that can be misconstrued,” he said.

While Jarding said many Americans recognize the nation will have to wean itself off of fossil fuels, “it was just kind of unnecessary even though it’s not inconsistent” with Democratic energy policy.

“It’s probably going to hurt you in states that Trump is already going to win. Does it hurt you in Alaska, does it hurt you in Oklahoma, does it hurt you in Kansas, does it hurt you in Texas? Maybe, but maybe not as much as you think,” he said.

A Senate Democratic strategist downplayed the likely impact on the Maine Senate race, predicting that incumbent Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wouldn’t want to make Biden too much of a campaign issue in a state he is likely to win.

“It’s not necessarily new territory to talk about wanting to get rid of Big Oil subsidies. That’s been the Democratic position for quite some time,” the strategist said. “Republicans have repeatedly tried to move to other topics that are not the ones at the top of voters’ minds right now, which are COVID, health care and the economy.”

The strategist pointed to a Gallup poll from March 2019 showing that 60 percent of American adults favor “proposals to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels such as gas, oil and coal in the U.S. within the next 10 or 20 years, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The former vice president tried to soften his statement after the debate, telling reporters as he was boarding his plane: “We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels.”

“We’re getting rid of subsidies for fossil fuels,” he added.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose Democratic opponent is within striking distance in the polls and raised nearly twice as much as the GOP incumbent in the third quarter of 2020, was quick to jump on the issue.

Cornyn tweeted an article characterizing Biden’s statement as a possible “big mistake” and in a follow-up tweet asked: “And how do they propose to ‘transition’ 270 million cars with internal combustion engines? What will that cost?”

M.J. Hegar, Cornyn’s Democratic challenger, responded by asserting that since Cornyn was reelected in 2014, “nearly half of the oil and gas production jobs in Texas have disappeared.”

She argued that her opponent is “fighting for his CEO donors” and said, “Texas must continue leading the world in energy — and that means investing in clean energy.”

The campaign of Al Gross, the independent who is challenging Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) in oil-rich Alaska, sought distance from Biden on the issue Friday.   

“Al firmly supports the oil and gas industry. He has no plans to support any legislation that would close or slow the industry in any capacity,” said Julia Savel, the communications director for the Gross campaign.

Savel called the oil and gas industry “essential to Alaskan life” and said, “Dr. Gross will continue to work with oil and gas industries to help Alaska’s dwindling economy thanks to six years of leadership under Dan Sullivan.”

Biden’s statement also put vulnerable House Democrats on the defensive.

Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said: “Joe Biden delivered a prime time reminder that he and his radical party will do whatever they can to destroy the energy industry and the millions of jobs it supports.”

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D), a top Republican target running for reelection in New Mexico’s 2nd District, tweeted: “I disagree with VP Biden’s statement tonight.”

“Energy is part of the backbone of New Mexico’s economy. We need to work together to promote responsible energy production and stop climate change, not demonize a single industry,” she said.

Rep. Kendra Horn, another vulnerable Democrat who is up for reelection in Oklahoma, a major oil-producing state, tweeted: “Here’s one of the places Biden and I disagree.”

“We must stand up for our oil and gas industry. We need an all-of-the above energy approach that’s consumer friendly, values energy independence, and protects OK jobs. I’ll keep fighting fo that in Congress,” she pledged.

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said Biden’s statement is also a liability for Democratic candidates in Western Pennsylvania, such as Rep. Conor Lamb, and running for three Republican toss-up seats in Texas: the 21st, the 22nd, and the 24th congressional districts.

“In Western Pennsylvania where you have some battles for the Conor Lamb seat and others, it’s going to put them on the defensive. It holds a special resonance in Western Pennsylvania because [the energy industry] is what helped bring back that area after it was hard hit in the early nineties,” he said.

O’Connell said Biden “drew attention to something that he had been doing a good job deflecting on in terms of assuaging people’s fears,” referencing GOP attempts to tie Biden to bold liberal proposals to respond to climate change.

Updated on Oct. 26 at 6:18 p.m.

Tags Dan Sullivan Donald Trump Joe Biden John Cornyn Kendra Horn Maine Mitch McConnell Pennsylvania Susan Collins Texas
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