Will national Democrats drilling strategy spill over and pollute oil patch Dems re-election? 

The Obama Administration’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has attracted its share of critics, many from the predicable corners of environmental absolutists and partisan Republican looking to dent the image of a Democratic president.  

Oil spill-spawned trouble for President Barack Obama-themed stories have popped up in the sometimes-wishful thinking conservative press.  (The Washington Times slapped the headline “Oil slick poses political peril for Obama” on an Associated Press story filed by the paper’s former White House reporter Joseph Curl.)  A scribe for The Hill framed the issue cogently: a bungled response to the environmental calamity threatens to undermine the “image of competence that the Obama administration has used as a trump card over its predecessor.”  

The heat that administration spokesmen have had to weather paled in comparison to the indignant frenzy whipped up by Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-TX) apology to British Petroleum’s CEO for the Obama’s Administration's - in his estimation - “$20 billion shakedown” of the international energy behemoth in seeking advance funds to cover cleanup costs incurred by the federal government.

Strategists in the White House political office must have seen a light at the end of the tunnel that flickering to life when Barton blurted out from the House Energy Committee dais.  Memories must have danced in their heads of the political hay that Democrats made at Republican expense in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

 

In the run up to Friday’s House vote on an oil industry-regulation bill Democrats pushed to address Gulf spill fallout, Democratic strategists were salivating. Politico quoted congressional staffers and campaign strategists who could barely contain themselves:

“If, after the worst oil spill in the history of the country, Republicans were to vote no against new offshore drilling protections — can you imagine the ads?” asked one senior Democratic aide.

Campaign strategists certainly can. “Republicans have found themselves on the defensive on that issue, and they are sitting on piles of big oil contributions,” said a Democratic strategist. “Absolutely, this is something we will be playing up before Election Day.”

The Politico story reported that “Democratic campaign committees are already preparing lists of Republicans to target with ads over the August recess” painting them as pawns of Big Oil.  Politico reporter Coral Davenport writes that Democrats crafted provisions of the bill to available as “Republican repellent” for Democrats in tight races.

Those attack ads are unlikely to run in states with shaky economies dependant upon jobs in the oil industry. Other provisions were inserted into the final draft of the bill to shore up Democrats in a political pickle.     

House leaders permitted a provision advanced by Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat whose U.S. Senate bid in socially conservative Louisiana remains uphill despite challenging a Republican incumbent tarred with a sex scandal. Melancon wound up voting for the narrowly passed bill, but now has cover with his amendment that the AP reports “would modify a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling” to permit some exemptions to the drilling moratorium imposed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  

Once the gavel slammed the relatively close vote to a close, only two Republicans opted for political cover and voted “aye.”  Thirty-nine Democrats, hailing disproportionately from oil producing districts, defied House Democratic leadership and the Obama Administration.  

One of those two Republicans was Rep. Tim Johnson (R-IL), whose Champaign-Urbana-based district is influenced by environmentally concerned college towns, and  is far north, culturally, of Little Egypt, the Southern Illinois region that enjoyed modest sporadic oil boomlets in the 20th Century.

One Republican who noticeably wasn’t cowed was was Rep. Anh “:Joseph” Cao, who represents a majority black, 70% Obama-voting New Orleans district at the mouth of the oil-drenched Gulf of Mexico.    

Regional solidarity, and economic realism, trumped ideology and party loyalty on this vote as “nay” votes came from five Hispanic Democrats from rural Texas and Congressional Black Caucus member, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Houston.

A week before the House vote, the McClatchy story reported that some of prickliest thorns in the side of the Secretary Ken Salazar, the Obama Administration’s point man on the drilling moratorium, were coming from his members of his Oil Patch Members from his own party.

One name the story failed to mention was that of Rep. John Salazar, from Colorado’s oil-producing Western Slope. In the most intriguing Democratic defection, the former U.S. Senator failed to keep his own brother in the Obama Administration's column. Secretary Salazar may find his efforts on this issue complicate any try at recapturing the U.S. Senate seat he gave up to serve as Secretary of the Interior.  His brother, Rep. John Salazar won’t have his electoral ambitions hindered for his “no” vote.

Democratic operatives may be chomping at the bit, eager to tar Republicans as insensitive to the Gulf oil spill, but last Friday’s House vote indicates that few are afraid.  More House Democrats, whose constituents’ livelihoods hang in the balance, however, are running from national Democrats on this issue.

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