Oil Money and the Democrats

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On Saturday, Nancy Pelosi said she and the Democratic leadership had changed their position on offshore oil and gas exploration. Republicans have pounced on drilling as their solution to the pain at the pump Americans are experiencing while depicting Democrats as putting environmental concerns before the pocket books of the country’s drivers. Pelosi’s fudging on the issue is evidenced that the GOP’s campaign is working. And the energy debate is raging as a top issue locally in competitive congressional races.

Dave Johnson writing at The Huffington Post said that the GOP was “a political party working for oil companies – for money.”

With this coordinated campaign we see oil company advertisements on TV, hear them on the radio, read reports of “studies” from these industry front-group “think tanks,” read op-ed pieces written by industry-paid “experts,” and then to top it off elected officials and candidates reinforce the message (while the industry message reinforces their candidacy).

But what about the Democrats? Is Pelosi’s switch evidence of Democrats succumbing to Big Oil’s cash as well?

The Center for Responsive Politics’ charting of oil and gas interests giving over the past 10 election cycles shows Republicans have received three out of every four dollars. So far in this current cycle, again, the GOP has received 75 percent of the $19.8 million contributed by oil and gas companies and PACs. The Democrats 25 percent is up from 18 percent over the 2006 cycle, which must partially reflect the fact that Democrats control Congress. The industry has almost matched its $20.2 million contribution it made in the whole 2006 cycle, and there’s two-and-a-half months left before election day. With the Democratic leadership signaling they are willing to shift their position, it will be interesting to see if any more petro cash will flow their way.

Here’s what’s happened so far this election cycle, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Four of the top 20 Senate recipients of oil money in the current election are Democrats:

Hillary Clinton (D-NY)       $400,419

Mary Landrieu (D-LA)        $189,350

Mark Pryor (D-AR)               $85,500

Max Baucus (D-MT)              $84,850

Clinton’s totals include her money from her presidential campaign. The other top Democratic recipients are from oil-producing regions.

Overall, 34 Democratic senators have received an average of $43,512 from the oil & gas industry so far this election cycle. That’s slightly less than half the average amount of $90,662 received by 45 of their Republican counterparts. (Senators run for six year terms; 35 seats are up for election this year.)

Among members of the House of Representatives, five Democrats rank among the top 20 recipients of oil & gas money in the current election. Four are from top oil-producing states and the fifth, Jim Matheson of Utah, was an energy consultant before entering Congress.

Dan Boren (D-OK)              $144,050

Charles J. Melancon (D-LA)  $88,850

Jim Matheson (D-UT)            $68,847

Chet Edwards (D-TX)           $58,700

Gene Green (D-TX)               $54,000

In the current election cycle, some 172 Democrats have collected an average of just over $9,141 from the oil industry. On the other side of the aisle, 193 Republicans got an average of $19,642.

No one needs to tell the oil industry that it’s unpopular these days with the American public (except in the states where it fuels the economy). In the past, other industries have smoothed their relations on Capitol Hill – no matter what the public mood – by spreading large sums of money to both sides of the political aisle. But for the most part the oil industry has not played that game. Historically, it’s sided heavily with Republicans and this year follows that pattern as well.

Still, the industry does not lack for political sophistication. No matter how the elections turn out in November, the industry will still be a force to be reckoned with when a new Congress and a new administration sit down to hammer out energy policy.

Oil-state Democrats, rare as they may be, could play an important role as the natural ambassadors between an oil-unfriendly party and a Democratic-unfriendly industry. Even to a hard-nosed oilman, a little extra cash for their campaign coffers this year might seem a prudent investment.

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  • This is the exact reason why we must find alternative local natural resources to crude oil before we hand over all power to OPEC. My fear is that it’s too late.