Ads putting candidates over an oil barrel

Times Staff Writer

As voters steam over gas prices, Republican congressional candidates are bracing for a gusher of ads from now until election day attacking their ties to oil companies.

“What kind of mark has Bob Schaffer made as a politician?” says an ad attacking Colorado’s Republican Senate candidate and former congressman. “He’s left a definite imprint, accepting over $150,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests and voting in Congress to give oil and gas interests over $13 billion in tax breaks.”

Amid the onslaught, the oil industry is increasingly worried about this year’s election. Oil executives could face a bigger Democratic majority in Congress and a Democrat in the White House, both set on repealing industry tax breaks and imposing a windfall profits tax.


Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama supports a tax on windfall profits, while Republican John McCain opposes it.

“We’re bracing for the worst,” said Jeff Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, who fears industry arguments will fall on deaf ears in the next Congress. “From the political rhetoric, I’m worried we’ll see some really bad choices after the elections.”

And more than in years past, the industry’s political allies, the bulk of them Republicans, have become prime Democratic targets.

“There’s always been a negative association in tying candidates, and especially Republicans, to the oil and gas industries,” said Mark Longbaugh, a Democratic media consultant, who added that the connection to oil interests was a special liability this year. “I think the issue is probably the biggest anger point of any issue among the electorate today.”

So what’s a Republican candidate to do?

“You hunker down and ride it out,” said Carl Forti, a former congressional GOP strategist and now executive vice president for issue advocacy at Freedom’s Watch, a conservative organization.

About $152 million has been spent for televised political ads focusing on energy, said Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, which tracks political advertising. This year’s total will far surpass the amount spent on the issue in 2006, he said.

Among besieged Republicans, some are trying to distance themselves from oil companies.

“In a political race, people will say a lot of things,” says an ad for Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). “They’ll say Norm is a rubber stamp for the president. But he’s been ranked as one of the most independent senators. They’ll say he’s in the pocket of big oil. But he voted to take away their special tax breaks.”

Others are appealing directly to the Democrats. Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) responded to a recent attack ad by associating himself with likely Democratic presidential nominee Obama.

“Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment?” says a Smith ad. “Barack Obama.”

That ad has sparked controversy because Obama has endorsed Smith’s Democratic opponent, Jeff Merkley.

Other Republicans are fighting back, portraying their support for the industry as important to the economy and national security.

Punishing the industry would only increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil by discouraging domestic production, they say.

And still others unabashedly defend industry involvement in national politics.

“At a time when we’re facing $4 gasoline, I think that you need people who’ve been in the energy industry to tell us what to do,” said Steve Pearce, a House member from New Mexico who is running for the Senate.

Dick Wadhams, campaign manager for Colorado Senate candidate Schaffer, said that Democrats’ attacks on the oil industry could backfire against growing public support for expanded domestic energy exploration.

And Freedom’s Watch has run ads attacking Democrats for blocking expansion of domestic energy production.

“Chris Carney voted five times against environmentally safe domestic energy production -- voted against American energy independence,” says a radio ad scheduled to run in the Pennsylvania Democrat’s House district. “But Chris Carney stands in the way while we cut back on gas and groceries, family outings and summer vacations.”

The Democrats, in a broad, cross-country assault, are aiming at House and Senate Republicans for ties to oil and to President Bush.

Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic challenger to Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), filmed a TV ad at what has become Democrats’ favorite campaign stop: a filling station.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has posted ads attacking Republicans -- including Oregon’s Smith -- for ties to the oil industry on a website used by consumers to check on gas prices.

The House Democrats’ campaign committee aired radio ads featuring a Bush impersonator who “thanks” 13 Republican representatives for supporting the industry’s energy agenda.

“Sure, gasoline is over four bucks a gallon and the oil companies are making record profits, but what’s good for Big Oil is good for America, right?” the ad goes. “I guess that’s why they call us the Grand OIL Party.”

The oil and gas industry has contributed more than $17 million to federal candidates and parties this election cycle and has ramped up donations to Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Republicans still receive the bulk of the contributions, but Democrats, many from energy-producing regions, have received 26%, up from 18% in the last election cycle.

The stakes for the industry are huge.

A move to repeal $12 billion to $18 billion in oil industry tax breaks is one vote shy of overcoming a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate.

As well, a drive to force oil companies to pay billions of dollars in royalties to the U.S. Treasury for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico also could gain momentum if Democrats, as expected, expand their majorities in the House and Senate.

Overall, the end of the Bush presidency is likely to make the political climate more difficult for the industry.

If Democrats expand their congressional majorities, said Tyson Slocum, director of the consumer group Public Citizen’s energy program: “Prospects will be very good for consumers -- and bad for oil companies.”