Endangered Senate Energy chairwoman Mary Landrieu has a new problem to worry about — the risk that her longtime supporters in the oil and gas industry would abandon her in a December runoff against Republican challenger Bill Cassidy.
Even before Wednesday’s news of a personnel shakeup in the Louisiana Democrat’s campaign, people in the industry were grappling with a tough decision: whether to stick with one of their staunchest champions on the Hill or embrace Cassidy in hopes of putting Republicans in charge of the Senate. Some of them say the choice has become especially acute in recent months, with polls indicating the likelihood of a Dec. 6 runoff that could decide which party controls the chamber.
Also working against Landrieu is the partisan gridlock in the Senate, which has prevented floor votes on a series of pro-drilling, anti-Environmental Protection Agency bills that the industry wants, including legislation she championed that would approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That paralysis has convinced many in the industry that their best hopes lie in a GOP-led Senate, even some Landrieu supporters say.
“If she is the only thing standing in between Mitch McConnell being majority leader and Harry Reid, I think oil and gas goes to Bill Cassidy,” said one D.C.-based oil industry executive who has raised money for Landrieu.
“I think there are a lot of industry participants that are soul searching,” said Jim Noe, executive vice president of the Houston-based company Hercules Offshore and executive director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, who has raised and donated money for Landrieu’s past campaigns but held off this time. “It’s a pretty compelling case that Cassidy can make in saying, ‘I know she’s your friend, but look at all the things we can do with a Republican-controlled Congress.’”
Mark Miller, president of Lafayette-based Merlin Oil & Gas, said the choice of Landrieu versus Cassidy is “a tough call” in the industry. “I’m going to support her because I think her position as chairwoman of the Energy Committee is a very important thing for Louisiana and our country,” said Miller, who is a Republican. But he acknowledged, “There is consternation about what to do.”
Cassidy himself advanced that theme in an interview this week. “Any Republican as chair of the energy committee is better than Harry Reid and Mary Landrieu,” he said. “Because whatever Sen. Landrieu would like to do, Harry Reid will not allow it. ”
Such a switch in loyalties would be a big turnaround for Landrieu, who so far has managed to keep the industry’s support despite President Barack Obama’s deep unpopularity in her state. For the past two years, Landrieu’s campaign donations from the energy industry have outweighed Cassidy’s nearly 3 to 1, according to a POLITICO analysis of the most recent federal data running through early August.
The Gulf Coast’s oil and gas industry is so diverse, with so many small and medium-sized companies, that nobody’s expecting any kind of a unanimous shift toward Cassidy. But in a runoff that’s already expected to be tough, even a slackening of oil-and-gas support would damage Landrieu’s prospects.
Her most loyal backers scoff at the idea that the industry would abandon her, noting that her position as the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat would give her a powerful role even in a GOP Senate — while Cassidy would be, at best, a freshman backbencher.
“Just having that Republican majority is not going to really give you anything that the industry can use,” said former Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnston, who was the last Louisiana senator to chair the panel before Landrieu got the gavel 19 years later, in February. He added: “There are a few individuals who are sort of professional Republicans who also happen to be in the oil and gas business. But the industry as a whole is very strong for Mary.”
Landrieu’s supporters have another warning for any donors thinking of switching to Cassidy’s side: Think about 2016, when Democrats will face a vastly more favorable Senate electoral map than they do this time around. If Landrieu loses her reelection this year, the next Democrat in line to lead the energy committee would be liberal Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Without Landrieu in the Senate, “those of us that come from energy states, we’re dead, we’re absolutely dead,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters last week during a conference call organized by her campaign.
But others expressed doubt that fears of 2016 will sway many people. “We’d probably think about that bank shot more than the average person,” the D.C.-based executive said. “But it’s a complicated bank shot for, I think, folks to get their heads around.”
Landrieu has based much of her reelection campaign on the clout she brings as energy chairwoman, using that perch to advance industry causes like a bill to approve the Keystone pipeline — even though she couldn’t get Reid to bring that legislation up for a floor vote this summer. She has denounced Obama’s unwillingness to expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, stood by the industry after the 2010 Gulf spill and fought to bring billions of dollars in fines from that disaster back to Louisiana and other coastal states.
Polls show Landrieu comfortably ahead of Cassidy in Louisiana’s Nov. 4 jungle primary but offer little hope that she can win the race outright. And when the choices are narrowed to just her and Cassidy, he holds a narrow lead in one recent poll from a Democrat-friendly firm.
Still, through Aug. 2, it was clear that the energy industry was betting heavily on Landrieu.
Since January 2013, she racked up $1.6 million from individuals and political action committees connected to oil and gas companies, utilities, mining interests and offshore services firms in Louisiana and elsewhere, compared with $602,875 for Cassidy, according to POLITICO’s review of the most recently published Federal Election Commission data. Those sums include $594,000 specifically from oil and gas drillers and refiners for Landrieu, compared with $298,000 for Cassidy.
Landrieu’s money has tended to come from larger companies like ExxonMobil, whose executives have given her $47,700 in the last two years. Cassidy got more checks from smaller, local companies, as well as from individuals who did not specify a company but listed their job as oil and gas production.
While Landrieu has gotten the vast majority of energy PAC money in the race, Cassidy has received some of it too. Industrialists Charles and David Koch have also jumped in on Cassidy’s side: In addition to $10,000 from Koch PAC, Cassidy has received a total of $20,800 from David Koch; Charles Koch; Charles’ wife, Elizabeth Koch; and C. Chase Koch, Charles’ son and senior vice president at Koch Agronomic Services.
More recent campaign donation numbers for August and September, due to the FEC on Oct. 15, will offer a sign of whether the gap has narrowed or industry is hedging its bets.
Even now, Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Don Briggs said the disparity in campaign dollars may be deceiving. “I have not really, honestly, talked to one single person that is in the industry — that is I would call middle management, lower management — that is supporting Mary,” said Briggs, who has supported Landrieu in past races but is a friend of Cassidy’s and has backed his bid from the start.
“I’m not sure the cash advantage is going to help her,” said former House energy chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).
A Landrieu campaign aide said Louisiana’s energy industry has invested so much in her reelection because it knows it needs someone from the state in a leadership role on the energy committee, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats run the Senate. “If I’m an oil guy, I’m going to still put my money with Landrieu because I’m better off in either scenario,” the aide said.
Even some high-profile Republicans from the state have been on board, including shipyard mogul Boysie Bollinger, whose company builds many of the offshore drilling rigs that dot Louisiana’s coastline. He appears in a Landrieu campaign ad in which he says, “Even though I’m a Republican and I don’t always agree with her, Louisiana can’t afford to lose Mary Landrieu.”
People from oil and gas companies respect Landrieu for championing their cause after the 2010 spill, pushing for coastal states to get a bigger share of federal oil and gas revenue and fighting her own party when it comes to offshore drilling, EPA regulations and Keystone. Tauzin said Landrieu has been careful to build strong ties with the business community to balance her more liberal votes on issues like Obamacare — something she learned from a “great mentor,” former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.).
But people in the industry also see a potential “strong senator in Cassidy,” Noe said, and they’re “rethinking the global picture of what a Republican-controlled Senate could mean for the industry on big issues like the Keystone pipeline.”
“For far too long, the Democratic-controlled Senate has kept Obama from having to make hard choices on energy policy,” Noe said.
Noe is a case in point: He and his company have raised and given money to Landrieu in past elections, but not this time — a decision that he says reflects “the result of the dissonance and tension within the industry.
“It’s certainly more difficult to raise money for Sen. Landrieu in this campaign than it has in the past,” he said, “and I’ve been respective of my industry brethren who are conflicted on the campaign.”
Instead, Noe expressed his support for Landrieu this summer by writing op-eds promoting her campaign in southern Louisiana newspapers.
“As the campaign progressed, I felt compelled to stand up for Mary because she is our biggest champion, not just in the Senate but also arguably on Capitol Hill,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. I think the biggest thing for Mary at this point in the election is getting her supporters to show up.”
Others in the industry are still thinking about the choice.
Former Louisiana Democratic Rep. Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said most of his group’s members are backing Landrieu. “There has not been a better person at a most critical time in our history than Sen. Landrieu with oil and gas issues,” he said.
On the other hand, John said, Cassidy would also be “good on the issues.” He said it’s hard to speculate about how his members and others in the industry would react to a runoff that decides the control of the Senate.
“If that is the case, it becomes bigger than Sen. Landrieu, chairman of the Senate committee, and Bill Cassidy, a freshman senator,” John said. “It gets way bigger than the oil and gas industry.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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