BILLINGS, Mont. – Democrats seeking to pick up U.S. Senate seats in Montana and Colorado are falling back on a party playbook now familiar for the U.S. West: Paint their opponents as a threat to the public lands the two sprawling Rocky Mountain states are known for.
The Republican incumbents appeared to have inoculated themselves against such allegations earlier this year, when Montana’s Steve Daines and Colorado’s Cory Gardner worked with President Donald Trump to finalize sweeping conservation legislation years in the making.
But the two Democratic challengers and their supporters have continued to push the issue in debates and a flood of advertisements, charging that the Republicans converted to conservation when the election was looming. The two contests are crucial in the fight for control of the Senate, where Republicans have a 53-47 majority.
“You can’t just be a supporter of public lands for four months before the election,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, challenging Daines, said in an interview. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has made the same case against Gardner.
Democrats have gained traction on a Bullock lawsuit against a senior Trump administration official with a history as an anti-public lands firebrand, Wyoming attorney William Perry Pendley.
The Trump administration installed Perry as the nation’s lead public lands steward, acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, only to have a court side with Bullock and remove Pendley from the post. The court also struck down plans approved under Pendley that would have opened public lands in Montana to more oil and gas development.
While the nuances of that case are likely off the radar for most voters, political analyst Sara Rinfret said Bullock can still leverage Pendley's removal to cast himself as the lands protector in the race.
“That's a push point for voters,” said Rinfret, who specializes in environmental policy. “There are parallels across the Rocky Mountain West."
Daines dismissed the Pendley dispute as “political theater” meant to distract from the legislation he and Gardner sponsored, the Great American Outdoors Act. The measure permanently reauthorized a fund that supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects nationwide.
Daines in 2015 cast a vote against an amendment that would have re-authorized the conservation fund, saying at the time that he supported full funding but wanted to reform the process.
He had a similar shift of position on a bill to protect areas near Yellowstone National Park from mining. Daines was initially reluctant to sign on, suggesting in 2017 that any ban in the Yellowstone area needed to be offset by allowing mining elsewhere. Legislation specific to Yellowstone eventually passed with Daines' support.
“Let’s step back and remember what was accomplished a few months ago,” Daines said. “President Trump signed into law the single greatest conservation win in the last 50 years.”
Development and protection aren't mutually exclusive, he said, adding that Democrats advocate policies that would kill energy jobs including for the Keystone XL oil pipeline now being built in the state.
During his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bullock questioned whether Keystone should be built. He says now that it should, as long as it's “done right" to prevent spills and with proper consultation with Native American tribes along the route.
Gardner, too, has made the legislation he sponsored with Daines a centerpiece of his uphill battle to convince Democratic-leaning Colorado voters that he works for the state’s interests despite supporting the president. At a debate this month he called it “the holy grail of conservation."
It’s an unusual tactic for two Republicans who slam their Democratic opponents for pushing environmental rules that could hinder oil and gas development.
In an interview, Gardner said former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a onetime petroleum geologist turned brewpub magnate, “wants to make oil and gas obsolete” and supported a “radical” environmental agenda. “His idea for economic success is mass layoffs of energy industries,” Gardner said.
Gardner contends there’s no contradiction between his protection of the oil and gas industry and support for conservation matters, citing a long bipartisan Colorado tradition of doing both.
That, ironically, has included Hickenlooper, who drew flack from the left during his tenure for defending the energy industry and resisting calls to let local jurisdictions regulate drilling.
Hickenlooper did support some crackdowns on the energy industry, including a limit on methane emissions that Gardner voted to overturn once Trump was in office, and has since stepped up his warnings about climate change.
Hickenlooper says he hasn’t changed, and neither has Gardner. “Cory Gardner has done as much to roll back environmental protections for air and water as anyone in the U.S. Senate,” Hickenlooper said in an interview.
Riccardi reported from Denver.