Why Republicans see electoral gold in talking up energy
But so far, the voters they’re hoping to attract don’t seem to care.
The party’s early messaging promoting the bill amplifies attacks that fell flat for Republicans in the 2022 midterms. And new polling shared with POLITICO shows that the GOP’s legislative achievements aren’t energizing voters in some key states on the 2024 map, threatening their ambitions once again to win the Senate and White House.
Most Republicans and independents — 59 and 66 percent, respectively — in Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and West Virginia had heard nothing or little about efforts to speed up federal permitting of energy infrastructure projects, a centerpiece of Republicans’ agenda, according to a Public Opinion Strategies survey of 1,200 registered voters.
Building America’s Future, a lobbying effort that supports the permitting changes, paid for the polling. The group is backed by GOP operatives with ties to former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Republicans, however, have faith in the message, even as they acknowledge the difficulty in translating energy permitting into campaign trail slogans.
“It’s resonating,” Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) said of the Republican energy agenda. “You can’t take a subject as complex as energy and try to message every little nuance.”
The GOP is using increasingly aggressive tactics to back up its bet that Americans will back its message. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tied the fate of a debt limit increase to H.R. 1, raising the stakes of negotiations that Biden administration officials warn could lead to economic catastrophe.
Democrats, however, were skeptical that the GOP plan would succeed.
“I don’t think Republicans are going to get very far on this,” said Rep. Ro Khanna. “People want a government that works, they want to build things. That’s way down in the weeds.”
The House energy bill, which the lower chamber passed last month with near-unanimous Republican support and votes from four Democrats, aims to expand oil and gas drilling and exports, ease the environmental permitting review process, and repeal many of the $369 billion of climate and clean energy incentives enacted in Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act.
Targeting those IRA measures could present risks to the GOP, however: Companies have announced at least $243 billion in investments in battery plants, electric vehicles factories and other green energy projects since Biden signed the law in August. And the vast majority of those projects are set to be built in red districts, according to analyses by POLITICO and Climate Power, an environmental organization paid media operation.
But when pollsters frame the GOP’s energy and permitting proposals as efforts to fight inflation, the ideas fared much better with voters, the survey showed. Seventy-one percent were more likely — including 38 percent who were “much more likely” — to back permitting changes when told they would lower grocery, gasoline and power bills.
That gives Republicans hope that their broader strategy might gain traction.
“It’s impossible to make permitting a relevant issue unless you’re focused on how does it impact American families directly,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and co-founder and partner of bipartisan public affairs and communications firm ROKK Solutions. “This is not just placing a gambling bet on whether energy prices will be higher or lower at the time of the election … This is showing a solution.”
It’s not hard to see why Republicans would want to focus on energy. The party’s unity on the issue stands in contrast to other flashpoints like abortion, where Republicans have struggled to align on navigating a debate that has energized Democratic voters. And while inflation has moderated in the past few months, it remains a top worry for voters.
“Would you rather pay more at the pump or less at the pump? Would you rather have a lower utility bill or a higher utility bill? Would you rather pay more for heating oil or less for heating oil?” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said of Republicans’ credo. “I don’t know how to wordsmith that, but it’s something along those lines.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee plans to use Democrats’ votes against H.R. 1 as a primary line of attack in frontline House districts where voters might lean more moderately and be open to Republicans’ focus on inflation.
On April 17, the NRCC sent out a memo hitting Democratic Reps. Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico, Mary Peltola of Alaska and Yadira Caraveo of Colorado for voting against the bill, calling their opposition “likely the beginning of the end of their reelection campaign” given the size of their states’ oil and gas industries.
The NRCC slammed 12 House Democrats when the bill passed in March, saying they “chose the extreme left” in opposing the legislation while citing how much energy and gas costs had risen under Biden.
Outside groups aligned with Republicans are pouring money into efforts to turn energy policy into a national campaign liability for Democrats. American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) group that is allowed to promote issues without disclosing donors, ran advertisements in Democratic swing districts urging them to vote for H.R. 1. Two such Democrats — Reps. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington and Jared Golden of Maine — backed the bill.
Republicans believe their energy message answers voters’ kitchen table concerns and will appeal to the independents and moderates they will need to win the White House and Senate. Relaxing permitting rules will help both clean energy and fossil fuels, they contend, and they say their legislation will ease pressure on global oil and gas markets while thwarting rivals like China and Russia.
“Whether it wins elections or not, this is something that we truly need to focus on for our constituencies,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said.
Still, even though the House passed the H.R. 1, dubbed the Lower Energy Costs Act, Republicans are a long way from enacting the measures, which need to pass in the Democratically controlled Senate.
And a focus on energy prices didn’t fare well in the 2022 midterm elections, even in a year when gasoline prices hit all-time highs and home heating costs surged. Those early year price spikes had moderated by the time voters went to the polls, and are even lower now.
That pullback in prices may have helped turn the anticipated red wave at the ballot box into a red ripple, giving the Republicans a thin majority in the House and keeping the Senate in Democrats’ hands.
Ernst defended the focus on energy prices last year, and blamed the poor Republican election result instead on weak candidates, many of whom embraced former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims about the 2020 election.
Democrats maintain that Republicans are presenting a feeble and incoherent agenda, not least because GOP lawmakers have championed various portions of their package. Some have touted the permitting aspect, which they note would help speed development of all types of energy sources — both fossil fuel projects as well as the clean energy projects that Democrats prefer.
Others, such as House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, have focused on their bill’s goal to spur more oil and gas production — enabling Democrats to make the case that the GOP plan benefits a fossil fuel industry that overwhelmingly donates to Republican candidates.
“That bill is fundamentally a message bill they are trying to use to set up this fake argument that the reason energy prices are going up is because of something that we’ve done,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said in an interview. She added, “In fact, the reason energy prices have gone up is because the big oil companies don’t want to invest like they used to want to invest because they know the tide has turned when it comes to investors.”
Republicans contend the wide array of policy issues in the 207-page bill benefits their members, allowing them to tailor its message to their own districts.
“You can argue, ‘Y’all need to be more concise.’ But because energy is so pervasive, it does affect inflation — this helps those families who’ve been pushed into poverty,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said.
“It does affect grocery prices,” he said. “This does create better job opportunities in the United States. This does resist China and helps to put us in a stronger position. So it does solve a lot of different things.”
And if gasoline prices shoot up again, that could make voters more receptive to Republicans’ call to increase oil and gas production. An April Gallup survey showed a 14-percentage-point jump since 2018 in the number of Americans who believe that national policies should encourage more oil and gas drilling. Thirty-five percent supported that position this time.
Even that, though, doesn’t represent a clear win for Republicans: A majority of Americans — 59 percent — still believe national policies should place a priority on alternative energy instead of oil and gas, according to the Gallup poll.
That included 62 percent of independents, the type of voters Republicans want to pull to win the White House and pivotal congressional races. And fewer Americans said they see the energy situation as “very serious” than one year ago — 44 percent then versus 34 percent now.
Brittany Gibson contributed to this report.