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The Midterm Politics of Fracking

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has a challenging road to re-election this November. Polls show he’s locked into a tight contest against Republican Cory Gardner, and his party’s president has an approval rating in the low 40s.

Here’s another headache for Udall: hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking.”

Industry leaders praise the technique in which a mix of water, sand and chemical additives gets injected into underground rock formations. The high pressure applied in the process extracts trapped natural gas. Supporters call it a job creator that safely ensures America’s energy supply.

Environmental groups disagree, arguing that it contaminates the nation’s drinking water supply and creates air and noise pollution.

It is that debate – especially in a state like Colorado that has its share of energy interests as well as environmentalists – that has put Udall on the defensive. And his isn’t the only race in November where fracking could be an issue.

Indeed, the practice of fracking takes place in several states hosting competitive Senate contests, including Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell believes Republicans have the edge if fracking becomes an issue. “Republicans are going to frame it as energy and job security. What the Democrats are going to do is stress environmental concerns. Those usually play a stronger role along the coast and with a more diverse electorate that shows up in presidential elections.”

Democratic strategist Karl Frisch disagrees. “The excitement [over fracking] is in the opposition. That has to help Democrats who oppose fracking and hurt them with their base if they support it.”

Others dismiss the issue’s decisive role come the fall. “In places like Colorado and Pennsylvania, it is a very specific issue that is near and dear to a certain kind of voter,” said Caldwell Bailey of PacWest Consulting Partners, a firm that specializes in strategic energy, industry and resource consulting. “But as an overarching issue that brings people out to vote, I don’t think it is an issue that swings elections.“

Hotspot ColoradoIn the case of Mark Udall, though, that might change in November. Udall is weary to take a clear stance in a state that has become ground zero of the fracking controversy. Last fall, voters in Colorado’s liberal stronghold Boulder banned fracking for at least the next five years, and several other communities along the Front Range approved similar anti-fracking measures. But that eco-conscious swath makes up only a part of the state."

A Nov. 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Colorado voters support fracking for natural gas, 51 to 34 percent.

Over the past couple of weeks, the dispute escalated. Liberal Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., vowed to put his considerable wealth behind a set of proposed ballot measures that would, among other things, grant communities more authority in designating fracking zones and allow bans. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who himself is fighting for re-election this fall, has rallied all sides to sit down and work out a compromise bill in order to keep the measures off the ballot and avoid a multi-million dollar, politically lethal election campaign fight.

While Hickenlooper has been active on the issue, Udall has tried to keep his head low and dodge political punches. At the Colorado Energy Forum in late May, he said horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have increased oil and natural gas production across the country, reduced carbon dioxide emissions and helped secure the energy supply. He then added, “Fracking is an industrial activity that’s occurring in people’s back yards. It has risks but it can be done safely. We can find a balance between protecting our land and air and water and have jobs."

On other energy issues, Udall has much stronger opinions. Just this Wednesday, he once again voted “no” on another Republican favorite project – the Keystone XL pipeline. So why the hesitation on fracking?

Political consultant Bailey said, “I don’t think he sees a lot of upside in commenting on the issue. He doesn’t see the value in making what is not a [decisive] issue right now an issue.”

By contrast, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., loudly supports fracking. After all, Louisiana lines up drilling sites like palm trees bordering the streets of South Beach. Landrieu also chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee – of which Udall is a member – and she is an oil and gas corporation’s favorite. In the 2014 campaign cycle alone, Landrieu received $393,336 in campaign contributions from the industry, data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows. That puts her in the No. 2 spot among all senators. Only John Cornyn’s, R-Texas, numbers remain unmatched. He raked in $722,081.

But is opposing fracking really a liability?

Like Landrieu, most Republicans favor fracking. That could put some Democrats in a tough spot where they need to weigh up environmental concerns against economic gains.

But polling shows that fracking isn’t universally popular.

The latest available results from the Pew Research Center show that the country is still very much split on whether or not to support fracking – and resistance is on the rise. In March 2013, a plurality of respondents favored the practice by a 48 percent to 38 percent margin. Only six months later, in September 2013, the results turned upside down: 49 percent opposed it, 44 percent supported it.

Yet Bailey, the energy expert, believes fracking will become more and more established as the years go on. “The debate won’t be settled,” he said. “[But] generally, everything will be more settled and fracking will be more accepted as a part of the U.S. energy landscape, if it isn’t already. The [current] production numbers alone would suggest that it is not really up for debate anymore.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article said NBC News had contacted the Udall campaign about this story but received no response. While NBC News did reach out to the Udall campaign and didn't hear back, the network did not explicitly state the subject matter was fracking. We apologize for the mistake.

Editor's Note 2: An earlier version also identified Loveland, CO as a liberal part of the state. It is not liberal, however. NBC News regrets the mistake.