For several years now, the oil industry and its allies in the GOP have tried to turn the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline into a political lightning rod for Democrats. They used it in campaign ads during the 2012 election. They claimed the White House decision to postpone its final decision last month was made to help Democrats running in red states. And now they are trying to force yet another vote on the pipeline in the Senate.
Yet despite all the effort to defeat opponents of the pipeline, they have come up empty handed.
Early in the 2012 election cycle, the American Petroleum Institute warned that opposition to Keystone XL would bear huge political consequences. Pro-Keystone candidates and their supporters spent $11 million on campaign ads in 18 races. They lost all of them. Eight of these were in tough Senate races in Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and New Mexico. Every senator who cast a vote against Keystone XL was reelected.
The upcoming Senate vote isn't likely to provide much help to Republican candidates in 2014 either. Intensity is everything in politics, and all the intensity is on the anti-pipeline side. Many major donors and grassroots activists are adamantly opposed to Keystone XL. They know it will fuel climate change, and many view it as a fundamental reason to reject a candidate running for office.
For other voters, the pipeline is unlikely to play much of a role. For average voters in states like North Carolina, New Hampshire, Alaska, or Arkansas, the Keystone XL pipeline isn't local and probably won't be their deciding factor in November.
But the dedicated base can make a difference, especially in midterm elections.
Passionate voters are the ones who volunteer for campaigns and help rally and energize others to cast ballots. And the party faithful are the voters most likely to turn out in midterm elections. They are the ones who take time off work or run across town with the kids in the car in order to vote even when there is no presidential candidate on the ticket.
Recent electoral experience shows that climate voters make especially motivated volunteers. Just ask President Obama. Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Obama's 2012 election, often talks about the number one reason people signed on to help the campaign was they believed President Obama would address climate change.
Anti-Keystone voters know the stakes are high, and that's why they are mobilized and engaged. They have helped create an environment in which the political risk associated with the pipeline comes from supporting it, not opposing it.
The administration announcement that it put off a decision on Keystone pending the development of a new route through Nebraska hasn't dampened the energy of anti-Keystone voters. Thousands of ranchers and Native Americans gathered in Washington, DC last month to protest the project. And major donors continue to call on candidates to reject the pipeline. Their enthusiasm should make the difference come November.