TIME Senate

The ‘Nuclear Option’ Might Just Save Obamacare

Filibuster reform meant Democrats could pack the federal courts — including one that is now poised to overturn a ruling that would hobble Obamacare

Sure, the Senate has been a wasteland for eight months now, but for some Democrats it was worth sacrificing what little comity was left in the name of a bigger legacy builder for President Obama: taking the “nuclear option” on the filibuster so they could prevent Repubicans from jamming up appointments to the federal courts. And this week’s federal court decisions on Obamacare would seem to have validated that decision.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Internal Revenue Service lacked the authority to allow the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange to hand out subsidies. The same day, another three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of appeals in Richmond upheld that exact clause.

The Obama Administration is appealing the D.C. decision — which would effectively hobble the healthcare law’s subsidies—and that appeal will go before the D.C. Circuit’s full panel of 11 judges. The D.C. Circuit court is known as the second-most powerful court in the land as it often settles questions of policy given its location in the nation’s capital.

It is also the court Democrats blew the Senate up in order to stack, by stripping the minority of the ability to filibuster certain nominees—a move so toxic it became known as the nuclear option. Seven of the court’s judges were appointed by Democrats, so odds are good the court will reverse the three-judge panel’s decision and agree with the Fourth Circuit.

Such a move would prevent the case from ascending to the Supreme Court, where Republican nominees have a five-four edge, though there are similar cases pending in courts across the country, so the issue could still be decided by the Supreme Court.

But Obamacare defenders will be breathing easier knowing that the D.C. Court leans in their favor. So, maybe it was worth shredding what little bipartisanship that remained to the Democrats in Obama’s second term. The President’s greatest second term legacy may well prove to be stacking the federal courts—not just the DC Circuit but many others—for a generation. Will that be worth all the lost legislation, like reforming the VA, immigration reform, appropriations bills, and so on? Time will tell.

TIME republicans

Businessman David Perdue Wins the GOP Senate Primary in Georgia

David Perdue
David Perdue waves to supporters after declaring victory in the Republican primary runoff for nomination to the U.S. Senate from Georgia, at his election-night party in Atlanta on July 22, 2014 John Bazemore—AP

The Republican businessman will take on Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, at the polls in November

Georgia Republicans picked themselves a Republican nominee for Senate Tuesday. For the first time in many a pecan season, the choice was less about the quality of the GOP candidates than about who was best to beat the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn.

Nunn, the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, is the most formidable Democratic candidate to crop up statewide in Georgia in years. She will face off with David Perdue, a businessman and cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue, who won the primary runoff with less than 51% of the vote against Representative Jack Kingston. (Ideologically speaking, both Kingston and Perdue are very similar and capable of giving Nunn a tough race.)

Nunn enters the general elections with a money and momentum advantage over Perdue, who topped a May primary of seven candidates but faced a runoff with the other top vote getter, Kingston, after failing to secure more than 50% of the vote. Nunn had at least $3.7 million on hand at the end of the last quarter in April and her campaign recently announced she raised another $3.5 million in the second quarter, though they’ve yet to disclose how much cash on hand remains. Perdue, a millionaire who has already given his primary campaign $1.25 million in personal funds, had $784,000 cash on hand as of July 2, but his primary with Kingston was bruising and required a lot of paid media in the final weeks.

Neither Nunn, the former CEO of Points of Light — a national volunteer program run with the Bush Family Foundation — nor Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General, have ever been elected to public office before. They are running to fill the seat of retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican. Georgia is one of the Democrats’ top two pick of seats in the Senate and a stopgap measure as they stand of the edge of losing the Senate majority.

Kingston’s defeat was a defeat for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which poured $2.3 million into the race on his behalf, effectively making Perdue the CEO candidate without business backing. Kingston had a long record of probusiness votes, while Perdue is more of a blank slate.

“There is a clear contrast in this race between Michelle Nunn, a leader who has spent the last 25 years leading volunteer organizations and lifting communities up, and David Perdue, someone who has spent his career enriching himself while often times tearing companies and communities apart,” said Democratic Party of Georgia chair DuBose Porter. “Georgians want leaders who will fix the mess in Washington, not someone who puts personal profit ahead of regular people.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Contends with Congressional Backseat Drivers on Ukraine

Congress again threatens to push Obama foreign policy with legislation

A Malaysia Airlines jet is shot down over the Ukraine and Congress is, of course, full of back-seat foreign policy advice for President Obama. The problem is when they start passing some of this advice to be signed into law.

Some say Obama has already been too aggressive. “[T]he crisis in Ukraine started late last year, when the EU and U.S. overthrew the elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych,” said former Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican. “Without U.S.-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that hundreds would have been killed in the unrest that followed. Nor would the Malaysian Airlines crash have happened.”

On the other side of the hawk spectrum, Republican Senators such as Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk felt compelled by the tragedy to call on Obama to pass energy, banking and defense sectoral sanctions against Russia, which has been supporting Ukrainian separatists but denies having anything to do with the downing of the plane. Thus far the Obama Administration’s punishment for Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and rabble rousing in eastern Ukraine has been targeted individual sanctions and visa restrictions.

“I don’t know how anybody can say our response has been anything but timid and cautious,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Hopefully on the positive side, this will galvanize the international community to take the kind of steps that should have been taken months ago to push back on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and cause him to pay the kind of price that he should pay for this outrageous act.”

Kirk also called on Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a wrongful death suit. “I want to hear that the Department of Justice will bring one hell of a wrongful death suit against Russian assets located in the United States to make sure that there is significant cost paid by Russia for this action of shooting down with an international airliner with a weapons system that is directly related to Russian armed forces,” he told CNN.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, went so far as to call on Obama to arm the Ukrainian government. “Now is the time to provide Ukraine with the weapons and other military assistance they have requested and require to defeat the separatist groups and secure their country—assistance that, had we provided it earlier, might have enabled Ukrainian forces to succeed in this effort by now and thereby prevented last week’s tragedy,” McCain said on Monday.

So far, all Obama has threatened is to levy unspecified costs against Russia, along with urging the Europeans to step up on sanctions.

Congress, and particularly the party in opposition, has often expressed strong views on the President’s foreign policy. Despite the fact that, constitutionally, foreign policy is the purview of the Oval Office, Congress drove the War of 1812 and was a key factor in the Mexican-American War. They also dragged Franklin Roosevelt’s heels in getting into World War II and had an enormous impact on Vietnam policy, not to mention Democratic efforts to defund President George W. Bush’s actions in Iraq.

But Obama not only has to contend with opposition complaints about his foreign policy, but with some friendly fire as well. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has been the driving force to get Obama to beef up sanctions against Iran, support Israel more strongly and hold a tougher line on Cuba. Menendez has helped push through sanctions that the Administration has explicitly said it didn’t want, something he could do again against Russia if the Administration doesn’t act.

Obama has not had an easy time with Congress on much of anything, but particularly on foreign policy. The other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is quick to condemn, and yet when they are asked to act, for example with Syria or Libya, they suddenly remember the separation of powers. Congress in both instances failed to pass any kind of resolution approving action in either country. That’s because polls show that from Libya to Syria to the Ukraine, the American people have zero desire to engage in more wars. Which means that despite the sturm und drang coming out of the hawkish wing of the GOP, Obama is probably more likely to listen to Paul’s libertarian Dovish wing.

TIME Republican Party

Ron Paul Says U.S. May Share Responsibility for Malaysia Airlines Plane Crash

Ron Paul
Former U.S. Rep. and presidential candidate Ron Paul waves to supporters before speaking at a campaign rally for U.S. Senate candidate Chris McDaniel, Saturday, June 14, 2014, at Gander Mountain in Hattiesburg, Miss. Kelly Price—AP/The Hattiesburg American

He raises the possibility that the U.S. may be using the crash to start a war against Putin.

Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul claimed Sunday that the U.S. and European Union may share responsibility for the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine last week.

“While western media outlets rush to repeat government propaganda on the event, there are a few things they will not report,” Paul, a former Republican congressman from Texas, wrote on his website. “They will not report that the crisis in Ukraine started late last year, when the EU and U.S. overthrew the elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Without U.S.-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that hundreds would have been killed in the unrest that followed. Nor would the Malaysian Airlines crash have happened.”

Paul is the father of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is ahead in polls of likely candidates running for the GOP nomination for president in 2016. The younger Paul has come under attack in recent weeks from Republicans such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential rival, for being too isolationist on his foreign policy.

Ron Paul, who ran for president in 2008 and 2012, and his son Rand both hail from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which advocates less intervention abroad, though Rand Paul has in recent months tried to distance his himself from his father. Rand Paul’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his father’s editorial.

In the post Sunday, Ron Paul goes on to write that Ukraine separatists would have everything to lose if they shot down the plane, and nothing to gain, suggesting Ukrainian culpability. “They will not report that the Ukrainian government has much to gain by pinning the attack on Russia, and that the Ukrainian prime minister has already expressed his pleasure that Russia is being blamed for the attack,” Paul said. “They will not report that the missile that apparently shot down the plane was from a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system that requires a good deal of training that the separatists do not have.”

President Obama suggested Friday that blame for the crash lay with Russian-backed separatists, and Ukraine has released audio-recordings allegedly documenting conversations about the missile strike among separatists. “Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” he said.

Ron Paul compared the incident to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people last summer. “Assad was also gaining the upper hand in his struggle with U.S.-backed rebels and the U.S. claimed that the attack came from Syrian government positions,” Paul said. “Then, US claims led us to the brink of another war in the Middle East.”

At the end of the post, Ron Paul says it is entirely possible that Russia is responsible for the crash, just as the Obama administration has suggested. “Of course it is entirely possible that the Obama administration and the US media has it right this time, and Russia or the separatists in eastern Ukraine either purposely or inadvertently shot down this aircraft,” he writes. “The real point is, it’s very difficult to get accurate information so everybody engages in propaganda.”

TIME justice

Study: Judicial Vacancies Are Jamming Up the System

Group pushes Senate to act to further weaken minority power to block judges

Talmadge Nix, a lawyer with the firm Nix and Poet in eastern Texas, represents a Chinese national who has been sitting in jail for months. Arrested as part of a prostitution conspiracy ring, the woman has a green card and she doesn’t want to plead guilty for fear of how it might affect her immigration status. Her co-defendants who are pleading guilty will be released from prison by the time this woman’s case goes to trial.

“There’s this hammer over her head: plead guilty and you’ll be out of jail,” says Alicia Bannon, author of a Brennan Center for Justice analysis entitled “The Impact of Judicial Vacancies on Federal Trial Courts” out on Monday. The woman’s plight is just one example of a judicial system groaning from a backlog of cases due to the high number of vacancies in federal courts.

Judicial vacancies are a particularly salient issue for eastern Texas, with judges there routinely having to travel more than 350 miles to hear cases, the study found. There are currently 49 U.S. District Court vacancies, compared with 29 such vacancies at an equivalent point in President George W. Bush’s second term.

“In trial courts around the country, vacancies are hurting our courts and individuals that rely on them to protect their rights,” Brennan says. “Delays are common. It’s harder to schedule trials. There are longer wait times to schedule motions. All this adds costs and uncertainty for litigants appearing before the courts. Cases aren’t neglected but they’re certainly being effected.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last year moved to strip the minority of the ability to filibuster some executive nominations, a move known as the “nuclear option” for the partisan toxicity it invoked in the Senate. That change has helped ease the flow of some confirmations—President Obama has overall confirmed more judges by sheer number to the federal courts than Bush by this point in their presidencies. But Bannon and the Brennan Center are pushing for even more reforms.

As it stands right now, appellate court nominations require 30 hours of debate before confirmation, and lower court judges require two hours. Usually, Democrats yield back their half of that time, but Republicans have often used their time to speak on other issues or the Senate floor stands idle as the clock runs out. Bannon says there should be a “use it or lose it” standard wherein unless senators actually use the time to address the judge under consideration, the rest of the time is yielded back. Such a move would quicken the pace of confirmations, but it also risks further angering the minority. Republicans were so furious at the nuclear option that work in the Senate in the last eight months has come to a virtual standstill, with even the most bipartisan of bills falling victim to partisan sniping.

Bannon would also like to see the so-called “blue slip process” halted or made more transparent. Though it’s not in the official Congressional rulebook, whenever a judicial nomination is pending before the Judiciary Committee, blue slips seeking comment are sent to the offices of the senators where the judge resides. If both slips are not returned, then the nomination does not proceed to a committee vote. Because Republicans have been refusing to return blue slips in a post-nuclear world, judicial vacancies are becoming clustered in Republican states. More than half of vacancies do not have nominees—all in red states where senators have stopped making recommendations to the president. Traditionally, a nomination begins with a senatorial recommendation. Of the total 60 federal vacancies, there are only 27 nominees pending.

Texas, which has two Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, has the most vacancies with 10 empty slots, one of which has been vacant for more than 2,000 days. Six of the 10 seats are “judicial emergencies,” meaning judges now handle more than 600 cases to make up the difference. There is a backlog of more than 12,000 cases in Texas, according to an April report by the Center for American Progress.

All the more reason, Bannon argues, that the practice of blue slipping should end, even though Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, says he opposes any weakening of that particular tradition. “At the very least, senators should be require to explain publicly why they’re holding back returning a blue slip and holding back to make recommendations for new nominations,” Bannon says. “The process should be more transparent.”

Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has made it one of his legacies to fill the federal bench. As the Senate looks increasingly like it might flip, which would all but deprive the President of future confirmations, the odds grow that Democrats push through these two procedural changes and smooth a glide path for a flurry of nominations before the party gives up control of the Upper Chamber.

TIME 2014 elections

Dems Latch on to Hobby Lobby in Election Year Push

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Was,. is joined by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col,. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a news conference following a procedural vote on S.2578, the "Protect Women's Heath From Cooperate Interference Act of 2014," July 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Was,. is joined by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col,. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid D-Nev., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a news conference following a procedural vote on S.2578, the "Protect Women's Heath From Cooperate Interference Act of 2014," July 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch—UPI/Landov

Democrats are using Hobby Lobby to get women to the polls in 2014

Senate Democrats tried and failed Wednesday to pass a legislative fix to last month’s Hobby Lobby decision at the Supreme Court. The bill would have forced all employers to offer all types of available contraception, and it was proposed after the court ruled Hobby Lobby, as an employer with religious beliefs, had a right not to pay for its female employees to receive four kinds of contraception the family owners believed to cause abortions.

The vote, which failed to overcome a GOP filibuster 56-43, was a political one, as there was no chance that House Republicans would have passed the measure. But it did what it was designed to do: highlight to female voters what Democrats say is a coordinated GOP push to take contraception away from women.

“I sincerely hope our Republican colleagues will join us and allow us to proceed to debate on this important bill,” Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who sponsored the bill, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “I’d like to remind them that women across the country are watching—and I think they will be very interested in seeing who is on their side.”

Democrats are hoping to turn out unmarried women—a reliably Democratic group but one that doesn’t always vote in midterm elections—this November in a bid to save the Senate from falling to Republican control. To that end, they have focused on a women’s economic agenda. On Wednesday, House Democrats unveiled a “middle class jumpstart agenda” that would raise the minimum wage, which disproportionately effects women, and limit executive compensation over $1 million.

Republicans, still smarting from the loss of two Senate seats in the 2012 elections due to inopportune comments about rape uttered by two of their candidates, have made a concerted effort this year to keep their candidates in line. They’re also pushing back on the legislative front. This week, Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a family leave bill that competes with Democratic initiatives aimed at helping women and families get more flexibility at the workplace. And House GOP women are looking at legislation of their own in the coming weeks on equal pay and other work issues.

Fischer, along with Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, inked an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal pushing back on the Democratic efforts around the Hobby Lobby decision.

“In the days since the Supreme Court’s June 30 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, we have been troubled by those who seem eager to misrepresent both the facts of the case and the impact of its ruling on women—all to divide Americans and score political points in a tough election year,” they wrote. “Americans believe strongly that we should be able to practice our religion without undue interference from the government. It’s a fundamental conviction that goes to the very core of our character—and dates back to the founding of our nation. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which protects rights of conscience, reaffirmed our centuries-old tradition of religious liberty.”

Still, Republican women aren’t unified on the issue. Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maine’s Susan Collins—who make up half of the GOP’s female Senate population—voted with the Democrats on Wednesday to end their colleagues’ filibuster. And polls show a majority of Americans were against the Hobby Lobby ruling and that women are trending Democratic in this election. But the question remains for Democrats: will their efforts get women to the polls?

TIME Education

Elizabeth Warren Slams Mitch McConnell on Student Loans

Yellen Testifies on Monetary Policy
Senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat of Massachusetts) listens to testimony from Janet L. Yellen on "The Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress." on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 15, 2014. Ron Sachs—Corbis

Massachusetts Democrat accuses GOP leader of asking students to “dream a little smaller”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren publicly took Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to task Wednesday on her bill to lower interest rates for government student loans, which failed the Senate last month just two votes shy of breaking a Republican filibuster.

“Last week Mitch McConnell was asked about the student loan bill,” Warren told an obviously friendly crowd of 1,000 young progressives gathered in Washington for the Center for American Progress’s Make Progress Summit. “Mitch McConnell actually suggested that the solution for college affordability is for young people to lower their expectations and become more cost conscious, because he said not everyone needs to go to Yale.”

McConnell made the remarks in a town hall meeting last week, when explaining his support of proprietary education—or for-profit schools—as, he said, it increases competition with traditional colleges:

…I think the best short-term solution is for parents to be very cost-conscious in shopping around for higher education alternatives. Not everybody needs to go to Yale. I don’t know about you guys, but I went to a regular ol’ Kentucky college. And some people would say I’ve done okay.

Warren then asked everyone in the room who had student loans and didn’t go to Yale to raise their hands—and the vast majority did. “His vision for America is that no one reaches higher than they can already afford,” Warren scoffed. “Mitch McConnell may think that the solution to the exploding student loan debt is to dream a little smaller. Well, he is wrong… We are going to build a better country than the one Mitch McConnell envisioned.”

Request for comment from McConnell’s campaign wasn’t immediately answered.

Warren then said the only way to fix the situation was to convince two senators to change their minds, an endeavor she asked the students in the room to help with. Because it’s either change their minds, or elect those that don’t “hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” she told the roaring crowd, who gave her an ovation.

The Massachusetts Democrat’s remarks came two weeks after she campaigned for Alison Grimes, McConnell’s Democratic challenger in this November’s elections.

TIME 2014 Election

Political Opposites Campaign in West Virginia

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee
Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

The economy and coal take center stage in a Senate race

On a steamy Monday afternoon in the Jay Rockefeller ballroom of the Clarion Hotel here, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant stood arm in arm with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They faced an adoring crowd of more than 200, some of whom had driven five hours for the event.

“The way I see this, Citibank and Goldman Sachs and all those other guys on Wall Street, they’ve got plenty of folks in the U.S. Senate willing to work on their side,” Warren told the crowd. “We need someone one on our side willing to work for America’s families and Natalie’s that fighter.”

Across the state in Charleston, Tennant’s opponent to fill the seat of the man the ballroom was named for was also holding a special event: This one featured House Budget Committee Chairman and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan campaigning for Tenant rival and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.

“It’s time to get West Virginia back to work, and that starts with sending Shelley to the Senate,” Ryan said. “Few states have been hit harder by President Obama’s devastating policies than West Virginia, but Shelley Moore Capito has been right there on the front lines fighting back. She has put forward solutions in the House to create jobs and to create a better West Virginia for hard working taxpayers.”

The subject of these two opposing events was strikingly similar: West Virginia’s struggling middle class. But the takeaways were vastly different. Ryan blamed President Barack Obama for West Virginia’s stagnant growth. Warren tied Capito to her banker husband and accused her of being in bed with Wall Street at the expense of every day West Virginians. “Shelley Moore Capito thought it was more important to protect Wall Street than Main Street and that’s why I’m here today,” Warren said.

Both Ryan and Warren have become their respective parties’ spokespeople for populist politics. Ryan has been giving speeches about poverty, while Warren just inked a best-selling book, A Fighting Chance, that focuses on the challenges the middle class faces. With West Virginia’s unemployment rate holding at 6% and per capita income at $34,477—making it the fourth-poorest state in 2012—West Virginians’ top concern remains the economy.

Thus the populist campaign messages.

Polls show Capito, who has a five-to-one money advantage over Tenant with more than $4 million in the bank, leading Tennant by 10 percentage points, according to an average of state polls done by Real Clear Politics. But Tennant is betting that Capito’s House Banking Committee voting record and elite background—she’s the daughter of a former governor—will hurt her West Virginia voters.

“I mean, campaigning with Paul Ryan says it all,” Tennant told TIME. “I couldn’t be more on the right side of West Virginians.” Tennant is careful to note in her speeches that she put herself through college working a minimum wage job and started her own small business.

Tennant has made Capito’s votes for Ryan’s controversial budgets an issue in the race. “She has voted to cut Social Security, to turn Medicare into a voucher system,” Tennant said of Capito. “This is about putting working class families first, not making it harder for them.”

American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-led Super PAC, went up with a web video Monday morning hitting Tennant for campaigning with Warren. The video paints Warren as “anti-coal” and says the campaign event shows “liberals uniting.” “Natalie Tennant’s statement today that Elizabeth Warren is ‘just like West Virginians’ says all you need to know about how out of touch she is with this state,” says Amy Graham, Capito’s spokeswoman. “She is a supporter of President Obama, a supporter of Elizabeth Warren and she’s going to have a hard time convincing West Virginia voters she’s not associated with their extremely harmful and deeply unpopular policies.”

Ryan also hit Warren for her anti-coal stances. “The design is to put coal out of business,” Ryan told an unemployed miner.

After the Shepherdstown event, reporters asked Tennant about Warren’s stance on coal, and Tennant said that while the two don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, she invited Warren to West Virginia to show she could and work with anyone. Warren, for her part, avoided any talk about coal or her more liberal social stances, saying Tennant and she are united by their defense of American families.

And while coal and the Obama Administration’s new Environmental Protection Agency limits on coal-fired power plants remain a big issue in West Virginia, the economy remains the paramount issue.

“Look at this room, we are going win this race,” Tennant told the standing crowd. “We are going to win this race. I believe it. I can see it. The votes are there for us.”

TIME 2014 Election

Friendly Fire Over Colorado Fracking Could Cost Democrats the U.S. Senate

U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014.
U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014. David Zalubowski—AP

The reelections of the Democratic governor and U.S. Senator in Colorado are threatened by ballot initiatives pushed by a renegade House Democrat

Correction appended July 15, 2014

With a nail biter election on the horizon that flip control of the U.S. senate, the biggest concern of many Colorado Democrats is one of their own—a wealthy congressman named Jared Polis who is pushing statewide ballot initiatives that party strategists fear could increase Republican turnout in November.

Polis has introduced and is helping garner enough signatures for a state ballot effort would restrict oil and gas fracking, a major issue in his home district where four of the five biggest towns have banned it.

The initiatives have so scared Democrats that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has spent the better part of the last month trying to come up with a legislative compromise so he could call the state legislature back into a special session to waylay Polis. But with an Aug. 4 deadline to lock in ballot initiatives, hope for a legislative fix is dwindling.

Meanwhile, Democrats have privately and publicly called on Polis to withdraw the initiatives, but he has refused to do so, saying the Democratic base supports these moves. While that is true, the fracking issue could motivate Republicans more, by making the oil and gas industry front and center this election year.

“The concern among many Democrats is that the ballot initiatives that we’re talking about are very very appealing the farther left you go; troubling at the center; and on the right, they are turn out machines,” says Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager. “If you’re in a safe district, you’re not concerned. But if you’re a Democrat that has to win statewide these things look a lot different.”

At stake isn’t just Democrat Hickenlooper’s tough reelection, but that of fellow Democrat Senator Mark Udall—and, given the electoral map, potential control of the Senate. Oil and gas groups are gearing up to pour in $20 million in Colorado to defeat the initiatives, which they say would essential halve or effectively halt fracking in Colorado. Fracking generated $29.5 billion in economic activity in Colorado in 2012, creating 111,000 direct jobs with an average wage of $74,811, according to the Colorado Petroleum Association.

“Oil and gas has been the spark of the recovery for Colorado and these initiatives would destroy that,” says Stan Dempsey, head of the association. “Why [Polis] thinks that only he has the perfect solution rather than the experts at the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission is beyond me.” Dempsey notes that the industry just went through an extensive rule making process last year in Colorado.

First elected in 2008, Polis is a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who founded a number of ecommerce companies, including ProFlowers.com. In 2008, he became the first openly gay parent elected to Congress, and while in office sponsored the Race to the Top education reform and has been a defender of the virtual currency Bitcoin. He represents a relatively safe seat, and given his personal fortune is not beholden to leaders or rich patrons to fundraise.

He first got involved in fracking issues in early 2012 when he lobbied Encana Corp. to halt construction on wells close to Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Colorado. “Many families have moved out of that area,” Polis tells TIME. “It absolutely hurt the housing market, then people saw fracking going in.” Polis says that having fracking within eyesight of a building reduces property values between 5% and 15%. He also cites environmental concerns given that there were 400 spills last year alone, many of them in populated areas.

Polis says he isn’t anti-fracking and that he believes in an “all of the above” energy policy. “It’s exciting that our state is contributing to American energy independence,” Polis says. But, he adds, he wants companies to act more respectfully of the population. One of his initiatives would require extending setbacks to 2,000 feet from existing buildings, a move that would cut in half the amount of available land or fracking in Colorado, Dempsey says.

Polis argues that it’s such a big issue for his constituents, he cannot ignore the problem. He would prefer a legislative solution, but the “window for that is closing,” leaving him no choice but to proceed with his ballot initiatives. He has contributed personal money to the push to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The Colorado Petroleum Association’s Dempsey compares Polis’s tactics, given the ongoing legislative process, to “negotiating with a gun to our heads.” “If he was serious he’d set aside the ballot initiatives, sit down with all the stakeholders and thrash out a compromise,” Dempsey said of Polis. “But it’s his way or the high way and the high way is going to be an expensive and potentially divisive political fight.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the fracking setback in the Polis ballot initiative. It is 2,000 feet.

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