Pipeline Politics Proving Difficult For At-Risk Democrats

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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Red-state Democrats running for re-election are forced to carefully balance their positions on energy development, teetering between their environmentally conscious base and general election voters.

Democratic senators do not have an easy election map this year. Of the 35 seats up for grabs, 26 are occupied by Democrats or senators who caucus with Democrats, while only nine seats are held by Republicans. More notably, 10 Democratic senators running for re-election are in states won by President Donald Trump. Such a titled midterm map is pushing at-risk Democrats in the Senate to adopt more centrist positions, with environmental politics taking center stage.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, occupies one of the seats national Republicans are most aggressively targeting. Heitkamp claimed victory in 2012 by the thinnest of margins, winning her seat by less than 3,000 votes. Her win in a deep-red state was due in large part to support from the state’s Native American population. Three counties with a majority Native American population — Rolette, Benson and Sioux — voted for Heitkamp by a more than 4,000 vote margin over her Republican rival. In fact, Heitkamp captured 83 percent of the vote in Sioux County, home to the Standing Rock reservation.

However, many of the Native Americans who sent Heitkamp to the U.S. Senate are planning to sit on the sidelines this year, citing her Dakota Access Pipeline support.

“It was really a kick in the stomach,” Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun said in an Associated Press report published Monday. “We rallied so hard for her, but when her hand was forced she basically sold out to big oil.” Hunte-Beaubrun, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, knocked on doors for Heitkamp in 2012. However, she is dismayed at her senator’s backing of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“The majority of the people here feel the same way I do — she chose oil over Indians,” stated Joe Torras, a horse trainer and rancher at Standing Rock who doesn’t plan on voting in November. “Once you damage that trust, we will never let it go. You only get one shot.”

Native Americans — an impoverished voting bloc that traditionally votes for progressive candidates — sharply opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline. Their stance mirrors those of other Democratic primary voters, but run roughshod over the sentiments of many North Dakota citizens who favor energy development. The environmental tightrope Heitkamp must walk is similar to what other Democrats are doing while representing states won by Trump, a man who won the presidency on the promise to turbo charge the fossil fuel industry.

Before then President Barack Obama shut the door on the Keystone XL pipeline in February 2015, most Democratic senators voted against its passage. Some of the nay votes came from Democrats in swing states that may be looking to boost their bipartisan chops, including Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. Other Democrats — like Heitkamp, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly — who played a crucial role in Keystone’s Senate passage have felt the wrath of environmental activists.

Baldwin, who holds a strikingly progressive record, must navigate re-election in a state that has shifted rightward in recent years. The Wisconsin senator voted against Keystone XL in 2015, but has since tried to court working class voters by pushing Trump to use American-made steel for the project.

“I think our workers deserve better,” Baldwin said during a March 2017 press conference, referring to Keystone construction she didn’t support to begin with. “And President Trump so far has shown that he will talk the talk when it comes to buy America, but he won’t walk the walk.”

Another Democrat who voted against Keystone XL, Brown, has expressed similar “Buy American” statements. The progressive lawmaker praised Trump’s decision to require American-made steel for new and retrofitted pipelines. Energy policy is an important issue for voters in the U.S. Rust Belt. Ohio, usually an election bellwether state, took a notable right turn in the 2016 election and awarded Trump an eight-point margin of victory.

Other Democrats, however, have embraced pipeline construction more publicly. Democratic Senators like Manchin, Donnelly, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heitkamp and others not only support projects like the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, but are doubling down for election season. (RELATED: Greens File Lawsuit To Stop The Keystone XL Pipeline From Being Built)

“What this country needs is more jobs, and that is why I have always been a proponent of the Keystone XL Pipeline and was an original cosponsor of legislation approving the Keystone XL Pipeline project,” Manchin said in a January 24 statement. “As I’ve said before, we must address the critical issues of moving America toward energy independence, while continuing to foster job growth and economic prosperity.”

Trump is nowhere more popular than in West Virginia, a focal point of the struggling coal industry. Manchin’s rampant support for many of the president’s policies has helped him remain viable in the Republican-leaning state. His centrist bona fides earned him a Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders-style primary challenger this year, but he nonetheless crushed her during the May 9 primary, paving the way for him to focus on his independent streak ahead of the November elections.

Other members of his party, however, may not have it so easy.

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