While the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, Sen. John Kerry, has led the opposition to oil drilling on the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Democrats' hopes of regaining control of the Senate hinge on pro-drilling candidates in three key states: Alaska, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
In Washington on Thursday, the three Democratic candidates in those states — Rep. Brad Carson of Oklahoma, Rep. Chris John of Louisiana, and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles — joined forces to, in effect, declare their ANWR independence from Kerry.
If this trio wins their races this fall, they'll do it partly by running against Kerry on ANWR.
Not only did Kerry lead a 2002 filibuster that scuttled any chance of approval of ANWR drilling, but he reveled in his role as anti-ANWR crusader.
"How sweet it is," Kerry told reporters after the April 2002 vote to sustain the filibuster against drilling.
In an energy policy speech in January 2002, Kerry said, “Big oil and its allies have lusted over the (Alaska) refuge for two decades. With each attempt, they made up new arguments for despoiling a unique and irreplaceable Arctic environment.”
Alaskan Knowles gave a backhanded slap to such rhetoric Thursday.
“Not only do we support a responsible development of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for exploration and potential production of oil and gas, but we support changing the tone in the United States Senate,” he said.
“I really believe that having Democrats who are willing to stand up for a strong energy policy, independent voices, is going to make a difference in the 109th Congress as to whether we have an energy bill or do not,” Carson said.
He added that “we need people in the U.S. Senate who are members of the Democratic Party, but who are willing to do what’s right for the United States and increase domestic production and availability of both oil and natural gas.”
Helpful contrast with Kerry
Acknowledging his differences with Kerry, John argued that “in my race this (contrast) works well because I believe I can fight for a more pro-production (policy), for jobs and energy security, which is contrary to what Sen. Kerry has been advocating. So I think it shows a contrast, that I’m willing to fight for Louisiana.”
John admitted that drilling in ANWR might have some negative environmental effects. But he said his state, like Alaska, had an environmentally sensitive coastline and yet “we have developed that in a relatively responsible way.”
As for ANWR, he added, “Is there not going to be one blade of grass that will not be adversely affected? The answer is no, but you have to balance that with the need out there and the vulnerability we have from the importation of crude from very unstable countries.”
Carson said that if the three pro-drilling Democrats are elected, “the chances of exploration and production in ANWR are greatly enhanced." That's not necessarily so. The three senators that Carson, Knowles, and John would replace also support drilling in ANWR, so their election wouldn’t in itself change the vote count.
But, said Carson, the three hope to "take some of the partisanship out of that issue. … Having Democrats who support oil exploration in ANWR is going to be extraordinarily important if this (drilling) is going to happen.”
Carson, John and Knowles said one of their goals was to redefine the Democratic Party as one that listens as much to domestic oil producers as it does to the Sierra Club and other anti-ANWR drilling forces who now wield extraordinary clout within Democratic ranks.
Oil industry view
“I was talking to one of the top oil company guys this week and he said, ‘You know the thing we need for better energy policy in this country? The single best thing we could have is more pro-energy Democrats,’” Carson said.
The Democrats need a net gain of two seats to win back the Senate if President Bush is re-elected. If Kerry wins, Democrats would need a net gain of only one.
In Alaska, which has not elected a Democratic senator in 30 years, Knowles is locked in a tight race with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to her seat by her father, former Sen. Frank Murkowski, who is now Alaska’s governor.
The charge of nepotism has weighed on Murkowski’s chances of winning the seat in her own right.
Carson will need to wait until a July 27 GOP primary to find out which Republican he’ll face on the Nov. 2 ballot, but Democratic strategists say that the Oklahoma seat, left open by the retirement of GOP veteran Sen. Don Nickles, is a prime opportunity for a gain since Carson has a moderate-to-conservative voting record that Oklahomans can support.
John may emerge from Louisiana’s unique all-candidate contest and be in a Dec. 4 runoff with Republican Rep. David Vitter.