Top Senate Races to Watch for Energy and Environment

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By Tiffany Stecker

November’s Senate elections could make or break moderate Democrats who survived the rising tide of Republicans over the last decade, particularly in fossil-fuel rich states where coal, oil, and gas buoy local economies.

Ten Democratic senators are up for re-election in states that went for Republican President Donald Trump in 2016. Three of those senators are in fossil fuel-rich states.

West Virginia has the second-highest annual coal production rate in the nation, according to the Energy Information Administration. North Dakota produces more than 1 million barrels of crude oil per day, thanks to developments in the Bakken shale formation. And Pennsylvania is the third-highest net energy supplier to the nation as a whole.

Three Washington-based ratings organizations rank the races among the closest in the country, although they don’t agree on how competitive the races are this early in the election year.

Despite their vulnerabilities in two of those deep-red states, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota have an edge, Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics at New York University who studies public opinion on climate change, told Bloomberg Environment.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) addresses thousands of members of the United Miner Workers of America as they gather for a rally on the National Mall in September 2016.
Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Heitkamp and Manchin “have been relatively adept at navigating the difficulties of being Democrats from these, not only [fossil-fuel producing] states, but of course heavily Republican states,” Egan said.

State Backgrounds

Both senators came to Washington after a career in state politics—Manchin as governor, Heitkamp as attorney general—and have not hesitated to buck their party on energy politics. They were the only two Senate Democrats who voted to confirm EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has met extensively with representatives from regulated energy industries since his arrival at the agency last year.

Potential GOP nominees could pose a significant challenge to the incumbents, though the Republican party lost a strong contender when North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer announced Jan. 11 that he would not run for Senate this year.

Pennsylvania, by contrast, is a swing state in most presidential elections. Trump won the state by less than one percentage point over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It’s still unclear if Sen. Bob Casey, another moderate Democratic incumbent and grandson of a coal miner, will pick up the rural working-class voters that Hillary Clinton lost in the state. But Casey’s pro-manufacturing stance gives him an edge over most Democrats, G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., told Bloomberg Environment.

“He’s not your typical urban Democrat,” Madonna said of Casey.

Unique environmental issues also have left their mark on state politics. North Dakota is home to the Prairie Pothole region, a vast area of isolated wetlands that made the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. regulation a top issue there. Concerns over the health impacts of fracking on drinking water first came to light in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region.

Bloomberg Environment has identified four Senate races in which pivotal energy and environmental issues could sway the elections.

West Virginia

Manchin has a loyal following in this coal-heavy state where a once-thriving Democratic party has taken a backseat. The self-described “centrist, moderate conservative Democrat” raised $5.5 million in the first three quarters of 2017, according to Bloomberg Government.

Manchin criticized Hillary Clinton’s comments on the 2016 presidential campaign trail in which she predicted that more coal companies would close due to shifts in the energy industry. West Virginia has lost more coal-mining jobs than any other state in recent years.

“Manchin is not a guy the Republicans can vilify,” Joe McLean, president of the nonpartisan Crockett Policy Institute in Tennessee, told Bloomberg Environment. Still, the Obama years soured coal country on Democrats and Trump’s net approval rating in West Virginia is still relatively high as he champions coal, suggesting that Republicans have a shot at beating the incumbent.

Rep. Evan Jenkins, a former-Democrat-turned-Republican who unseated 19-term Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall in 2014, is Manchin’s top potential challenger, raising $2 million last year. State attorney general Patrick Morrisey, who sued the Obama administration over environmental regulations, and former Massey Energy chairman and CEO Don Blankenship are also running in the Republican primary.

North Dakota

Heitkamp has split from Democrats on high-profile issues, criticizing the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule, also known as the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule. She also has advocated for higher investment in carbon capture technologies and supported biofuel policies despite the oil and gas industry’s general opposition to adding ethanol to the gasoline supply. Heitkamp has raised $8.8 million in the first three quarters of 2017, according to Bloomberg Government.

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp speaks at a September 2016 event.
Photographer: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Cramer quelled rumors that he was planning a run in announcing that he would not challenge Heitkamp. A skeptic of climate-change science, Cramer served as an energy adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and is one of the chief supporters of the president’s energy priorities.

State Sen. Tom Campbell is the only Republican to officially enter the race. Rick Berg, a former U.S. representative and Heitkamp’s 2012 Senate challenger, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are also rumored to be considering runs as Republicans.

Florida

“In state elections in Florida, there are three driving issues: education, crime and the environment,” Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner told Blomberg Environment. It’s home to the massive Everglades ecosystem, where the problems of water supply, climate change, flooding, and species conservation merge.

In a state where two Trump administration priorities—backtracking on the Obama administration’s climate change efforts and loosening restrictions on oil and gas drilling—will have a direct effect on residents, the state’s 2018 candidates for Senate are sure to face questions on energy policy.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is running for re-election and is widely expected to face Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). Nelson has received $12.3 million in contributions in the first three quarters of 2017, Bloomberg Government reports.

Scott successfully lobbied Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to remove Florida from a draft federal plan to lease areas of the coast for oil exploration. Representing a state with 1,350 miles of tourist-friendly coastline, Floridian politicians voiced bipartisan opposition to the plan to open up nearly all of the oil-rich Outer Continental Shelf to offshore oil and gas drilling.

Scott has supported funding to restore the Everglades, a project that could find backing in Trump’s upcoming $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is seen as a challenger to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, at a July 2015 event.
Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As governor, Scott repeatedly discouraged use of the phrase “climate change” in state government reports and emails, according to a 2015 report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Scott has denied the assertion, but his reputation as a skeptic will likely follow him on the campaign trail, Wagner said.

Rising sea levels on the coast, a result of climate change and melting ice in the oceans, “is going to be a very difficult issue to ignore,” Wagner added. But Scott may still pose a formidable challenge to Nelson, who is currently the only Democrat in statewide office.

Pennsylvania

The Keystone State handed Trump a crucial electoral win in 2016, but a Senate GOP win in 2018 could be harder to accomplish. The likely Republican to challenge Casey, Rep. Lou Barletta, represents the 11th District of Pennsylvania in the east-central section of the state.

To win, Barletta will need to sway voters in the Philadelphia suburbs—a feat that junior Sen. Pat Toomey (R) pulled off in 2016, but that Republicans may not be able to repeat in 2018. Voters in these swing districts tend to support a severance tax on natural gas companies, a initiative that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has been unable to pass in the face of industry opposition. Casey’s campaign did not respond to Bloomberg Environment’s question on where Casey stands on the severance tax.

“2016 may have been a high water mark for Republicans in Pennsylvania,” Egan of New York University said. That year, Toomey narrowly beat Katie McGinty, a protege of Vice President Al Gore and former chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton’s downfall was the shale gas and manufacturing counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College said. In that area, most voters are registered Democrats but nevertheless voted for Trump.

Casey has a much better chance at getting these voters back. But Casey also has been a top critic of the president, a record that could work against him if pro-Trump voters come out on Election Day, Madonna added.

Casey has raised $15.7 million in the first three quarters of 2017, and Barletta $1.6 million, according to Bloomberg Government.

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