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May 20 — House and Senate lawmakers think environmental and energy issues can still play a big role in this fall's presidential election, but outside observers aren't so sure.
Democrats believe issues like climate change will help accentuate the differences between Republican businessman Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, while Republicans think arguing that energy development is crucial for economic resurgence and job growth will be an effective strategy for their party.
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“It’s one of the issues where I think there’s the biggest disconnect between their [Republican] voters and their leadership,” Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) told Bloomberg BNA regarding climate change. “So, I would expect Democrats to make a point of that.”
In interviews the week of May 16, nearly a dozen lawmakers told Bloomberg BNA they expect the candidates to delve more deeply into policy issues. Republicans said they believe Trump will argue that electing Clinton would bring more burdensome regulations that will drag down the economy.
“A whole lot of voters, particularly working Americans, get it and worry about the extreme regulatory state we’ve had,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump's earliest Senate backer, told Bloomberg BNA. “Hillary Clinton will continue to use the pen, as Obama did, to advance a regulatory agenda. [Trump] is going to reverse a lot of [those regulations].”
But political science professors, former political aides and other outside observers think it is unlikely the race between Clinton and Trump will turn on—or even wade very deeply into—environmental or energy issues.
“With Donald Trump, a reality television star, likely driving the coverage of the election, it’s hard to imagine that this election will be all that focused on policy,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political newsletter produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Bloomberg BNA.
“Environmental and energy issues probably will come up, but I doubt that they will be major topics in the election or drive much of the vote one way or the other,” he said.
Even if Trump and Clinton move toward more issue-driven debates in the campaign, environmental and energy policy is unlikely to swing votes, Matt Dickinson, political science professor with Middlebury College in Vermont, told Bloomberg BNA.
“I do think issues will trump personalities this fall in terms of their respective influence on the vote,” Dickinson said in an e-mail. “But I’m not sure the environment and energy will be the primary issues, unless they are linked more broadly to the economy.”
One of the nation's leading pollsters said in early May that climate change and other environmental issues would not play a major role in the presidential contest (88 DEN A-1, 5/6/16).
Congressional Democrats disagreed that environmental issues are not among the issues that might sway moderate voters toward their party. They said elected Republicans were out of touch with how the majority of the country views these issues.
“There’s such a clear contrast between Republicans and Democrats on an issue, which most Americans agree is an important issue,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, told Bloomberg BNA. “So, I certainly believe that [climate change] will be one of the issues raised for the voters to consider in November.”
Durbin and other Democrats, like Sens. Ben Cardin (Md.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), argued the environment could be a decisive issue for many voters, especially young ones. They all said Clinton should press it as the fall campaign unfolds.
“This is an issue that can be a decision-maker,” Cardin, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s an issue voters should know. So, yes, I hope they do press it.”
Republican lawmakers urged Trump to emphasize the regulatory efforts during the Obama administration that they argue have harmed job creation and damaged the economy.
“What’s happening in the energy sector today is largely going unnoticed because most of it is being done by regulations,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think it can be a huge issue in the fall campaign.”
Other Republicans, like Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), said they have spoken broadly with Trump about the need for strong rhetoric on energy policy.
“I think he understands the plight of middle America and many of the workers in my state,” Capito said. “Specifically, what he would do about [energy policy], I can't give you that because he didn't give it to me.”
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