Thursday, March 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Dean Heller is taking the road less traveled among GOP candidates: The Nevada Republican says he’s better for clean-energy interests than his chief Democratic rival.
In recent email blasts, Heller’s campaign has ripped Rep. Shelley Berkley, Heller’s likely Democratic opponent come November, for voting against several renewable-energy amendments to the GOP’s energy and infrastructure package. (Most Democrats voted against those amendments, which set aside some requirements for environmental reviews, as well as against the larger package.)
Another email from his campaign said Heller “has long fought to bring a variety of sources of renewable energy to Nevada.”
Heller’s message puts him in contrast with other Republicans, who are distancing themselves from any past support for clean energy and instead are embracing an “all of the above” message that stresses expanded domestic drilling.
Geography has a lot to do with it, some observers say.
“There is bipartisan agreement, like it or not, in Nevada that, hey, it’s sunny here a lot of the time and so we have to do something with renewables,” Sun columnist Jon Ralston said.
Supporting renewable energy is virtually a requirement for Nevada politicians, he added, although that can lead to sticky situations for a Republican.
“Now, of course, that brings us to the question of what does that really mean that you support it? How far do you go with tax credits, tax incentives, before you get called a crony capitalist by the Republicans who love to use Solyndra as their talking point?” Ralston said. “It’s a difficult issue for Heller.”
Heller, who was just months into his third House term when he was appointed to replace Sen. John Ensign in May, led for some time in polling in the Senate race.
But Berkley, a seventh-term Democrat representing Las Vegas, has recently pulled into a statistical tie. A December poll conducted by local media found Berkley with a thin lead over Heller, 44.4 percent to 43.2 percent, well within the margin of error.
A poll out last week, conducted by a GOP firm, found Heller at 47 percent and Berkley at 44 percent, also within the margin of error.
The two are also neck and neck in fundraising, each amassing war chests of around $3.7 million as of the end of 2011.
With the economy as the leading issue in every campaign, Heller and other Republicans who back federal support for renewables have so far couched it as an important part of recovery efforts.
“Renewable-energy development could lead to thousands of new jobs in Nevada at a time when the state leads the nation in unemployment,” Heller campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith told Politico.
That’s a tack voters will respond to and reward, said Rocky Fernandez, the communications director at the Clean Energy Project, a statewide advocacy group.
“The candidates who want to do things and step up and make these industries thrive in Nevada, they’re the ones who are going to be successful in these upcoming elections,” Fernandez said. “If we don’t do it, other states are going to take it and we’ll have missed a huge opportunity.”
Renewables became a side campaign issue in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2010 victory over Nevada Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle, who had denounced green jobs as a “scam.”
Heller may be no Sharron Angle, whose campaign was marred by a number of high-profile attacks. But Berkley is trying to make the argument that voters will find Heller hard to the right when it comes to energy.
“Voters aren’t buying appointed Sen. Dean Heller’s election year scramble to paper over his pro-Big Oil, abysmal record on renewable-energy jobs,” Berkley campaign spokesman Eric Koch said. “Instead of making clean-energy job creation in Nevada a priority, Heller has spent his Washington career voting to protect taxpayer giveaways to Big Oil companies already making record profits.”
Berkley’s campaign has a stockpile of ammo countering Heller’s claim to be a leader in clean energy, from votes in Congress against certain renewable-energy and energy-efficiency measures to a 2008 letter questioning the cost-effectiveness of alternative sources of energy.
Besides aligning with the Democratic Party on most issues, Berkley supported a 235-mile transmission line to carry power from renewable-energy projects and was a vocal supporter of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, especially its support of a geothermal project in Nevada.
Last week, she introduced a bill seeking to revive a popular tax credit from the 2009 stimulus for clean-energy manufacturers.
Heller is hitting back, touting pieces of legislation he has sponsored — often with Reid — and calling for a nationwide version of Nevada’s renewable portfolio standard.
Both campaigns have enough firepower and money to enter into an extended battle over renewable energy. Both also have the motivation to take the brawl into high gear given that Democrats are eyeing the seat as a potential pickup.
So it comes down to Nevada voters, who face the choice of two candidates attempting to claim the mantle of renewable energy.