WASHINGTON, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Oil and gas interests are pouring money into a tight U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, giving twice as much to the Senate campaign of incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu than her Republican challenger even though the industry backs the Republican push to regain control of the Senate.
Landrieu, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, is struggling to fend off Republican Representative Bill Cassidy and Tea Party favorite Rob Maness on Nov. 4 in one of a handful of races that could determine which party holds a Senate majority.
As much as the industry wants to see Republicans wrest control of the Senate, it has a bigger fish to fry in the Louisiana race. Oil and gas interests want Landrieu to retain leadership of the energy panel and prevent another Democrat, Maria Cantwell, who backs an environmentalist agenda, from taking over the committee.
Landrieu is a key ally the industry will support even if it costs Republicans the Senate, industry leaders said.
“I‘m a strong Republican and there is no one I would rather have in that Senate seat than Senator Landrieu, regardless of party affiliation,” said James Noe, an executive at Hercules Offshore, a provider of contract drilling and liftboat services.
“You won’t see a Republican that is as energetic and forceful and persuasive defending our industry,” he added.
The race looks tough for Landrieu - polls show she has a narrow lead over Cassidy, with Maness a distant third. If neither candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, as many pollsters predict, it will trigger a two-way runoff in early December. In that scenario, polls show Cassidy winning by a comfortable margin.
Landrieu has received more oil and gas money than any other Senate candidate this cycle except Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the country’s top oil-producing state, according to Federal Election Commission filings analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington research group.
Individuals employed by oil and gas companies and industry political action committees had given about $791,000 to Landrieu and $373,000 to Cassidy as of early September.
Overall, the oil and gas industry has donated more than $36.5 million so far this cycle. More than $22 million went to individual congressional candidates, with more than $19 million, or 86 percent, going to Republicans and just over $3 million, or 14 percent, to Democrats.
Employees and committees related to Exxon Mobil, for example, have given $52,750 to Cornyn over the past two years and $45,900 to Landrieu. Only two other Democrats are among the 20 lawmakers who received the most Exxon-affiliated support: Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas because of his pro-energy positions on issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, and Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland because of his leadership position in the U.S. House.
All of those figures are based on the center’s data and reflect FEC filings available as of mid September. Spending will likely increase in the final days and weeks before Nov. 4.
Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Chris John, a former Democratic U.S. congressman, said Landrieu has pushed for key industry priorities. She also works well with the top Republican on the energy panel, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, meaning both leadership positions are held by industry allies so long as Landrieu keeps her seat.
“We’re hedging bets, but she’s deserving of that support,” John said.
If Democrats keep their Senate majority but Landrieu loses her seat, the energy gavel would likely go to Washington state’s Cantwell, who favors alternative energy policies. If Republicans win a majority, Murkowski is expected to lead the committee, with Cantwell as its top Democrat.
“That’s not good for us as an industry,” John said.
Hercules Offshore’s Noe said he called Landrieu’s office in April 2010, after President Barack Obama suspended new offshore drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a week, Landrieu had set up a meeting between Noe and U.S. Department of Interior officials.
“Not only did she demand the meeting take place, she left her office in the Senate and went to the Interior Department,” Noe said.
Landrieu also held up confirmation of Obama’s then pick for budget director, Jack Lew, until the administration lifted its moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. The administration did so in October 2010 and began issuing permits the next month. Landrieu acquiesced and Lew was confirmed on Nov. 18.
“She’s a bulldog for the energy industry,” Noe said. (Reporting By Amanda Becker; Editing by John Whitesides and Ross Colvin)