Oil donors shy on Trump’s 2020 campaign, for now

Donald Trump, public Oil gas

James Osborne – Houston ChronicleFor decades, the U.S. oil and gas industry has provided a reliable bankroll for Republican politicians seeking the oval office.

But not for President Donald Trump, who despite his pro-oil and gas “American energy dominance” policy has to date struggled to attract the big campaign contributions that oil executives handed his Republican predecessors.

Through the first six months of this year, Trump’s campaign fund had drawn less than $89,000 from the oil and gas industry, only about $600 more than the Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, according to analysis of donations exceeding $200 from individuals and political action committees compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington research organization that tracks money in politics. By contrast, Senators Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is facing a tough reelection fight in 2020, raised more than $230,000 from the industry while Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is facing a decidedly less competitive race, drew more than $195,000.

While it’s still early in the campaign season — with no clear Democratic challenger in place — lobbyists in the oil industry say for all the pros of another four years of Trump, the president’s efforts to upset trade policies that drive economic and energy activity worldwide have given some executives pause.

“Not to say we won’t get to the right spot, but trade is front and center and continues to raise issues for the industry on the macro level,” said Dan Naatz, senior vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “Part of it is it’s still early. Once you see who the Democratic candidate is, you’ll see some more enthusiasm.”

But it is unclear if oil and gas companies will come out for Trump the way they have for earlier Republican presidential candidates, such as Mitt Romney, who received $6.7 million during the 2012 campaign, and John McCain, who got almost $3 million in contributions, both outdrawing former president Barack Obama many times over.

In 2016, Trump received $1.1 million compared to Hillary Clinton’s $1 million. During that campaign’s Republican primary, the largest recipient of oil industry contributions was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who raised $1.6 million despite dropping out of the race six months before election night.

Even Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who ended his campaign in February, amassed more than $590,000 in contributions from the sector.

“Bush was a known quantity and Ted Cruz is from Texas,” said a lobbyist for one refining company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid tension with the White House. “Donald Trump is certainly not a traditional president, the understatement of the year.”

For all his cheerleading, Trump’s tendency to try and ram through policies, avoiding the bureaucratic processes upon which action in Washington is typically based, has struck some in the industry as misguided.

In early 2018, for instance, the administration proposed opening the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, only to retreat when Republicans in Florida and South Carolina objected. Almost 20 months later, the Interior Department has yet to submit a five-year plan for offshore drilling, leaving the industry to operate under the plan put in place by the Obama administration.

“The industry likes certainty, and I think with Trump, even though he seems to be favorable on some of their policies, they don’t see the certainty,” said another Washington lobbyist, whose firm represents oil and gas clients.

The lack of oil sector donations this cycle is hardly cause for panic for a Trump campaign that has amassed total contributions of almost $125 million in donations since he declared his candidacy in 2017 – three times more than his next closest competitor Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont.

And plenty of industries are happy to bet on Trump. So far this year, the president has drawn more donations than any candidate for federal office from the construction sector – more than $350,000 – and the transportation sector – more than $250,000.

With Democratic candidates across the board promising to shift the country away from fossil fuels to tackle the growing climate change crisis, Trump campaign officials appear confident the oil sector will be behind them in November.

“Banning fossil fuels is just the latest crazy proposal advocated by Democrats running for president. Such a policy would devastate Texas and put thousands of people out of work,” said Samantha Cotten, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign. “We wish them luck running on that message in Texas.”

For all the economic upheaval Trump’s trade fight with China has caused – global financial markets reeled last week as the two nations struggled to reach a compromise – oil and gas companies still have plenty to like about the president.

His administration has loosened federal environmental regulations across the board while opening vast new tracts of federal land in the Western United States and Alaska for oil and gas drilling. At the same time, Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, are pressuring countries around the world to sign deals to buy American natural gas as U.S. LNG export terminals rise along the Gulf Coast.

On the Democratic side, even the moderate Joe Biden is calling for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He and other candidates also have sworn off campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies’ political action committees – with some campaigns even returning checks to individual donors affiliated with the oil and gas industry.

That has political observers betting that for all the oil industry’s concerns about Trump, checks from top donors such as Exxon Mobil and the Houston company Hilcorp will be flowing in fall.

“They’re somewhat frightened by the middle of the road Democratic politicians and they’re downright scared of the green new deal,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, referring to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s climate plan, which a number of Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed. “Trump is not their ideal candidate, but he’s far preferable to Elizabeth Warren.”

Under U.S campaign laws, it’s difficult to know exactly how much the energy industry is donating to candidates. Through super PACs or political action committees, executives can make unlimited contributions anonymously to support their favored candiate — although the PACs cannot coordinate with the campaign or donate directly to them.

The perils of giving publicly to a controversial candidate such as Trump became apparent earlier this month when Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, the twin brother of presidential canidate Julian Castro, tweeted out a list of San Antonio donors who gave the maximum amount of money allowable to Trump’s campaign, saying, “Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”

The tweet set off a round of social media attacks against the donors, as well as Joaquin Castro for potentially inciting violence against them.Among the names on the Trump donor list were William Greehey, the founder and former CEO of the refiner Valero Energy, and Drew Crossland, CEO of Crossland Oilfield Services, a pipeline contractor.

“There’s potential blow back for officials at private companies,” said Matt Mackowiak, a political consultant with offices in Austin and Washington. “I imagine industry will get behind [Trump] but you might see them focus more on the super PACs.”

In the meantime, oil and gas companies are focusing their donations on House and Senate races with hopes of protecting the Republican majority in the Senate, as well as Democratic candidates viewed as more moderate on climate policy.

Among the top recipients of oil and gas donations is Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who is facing a primary challenger backed by the same advocacy group that helped Ocasio-Cortez unexpectedly win her primary for a New York congressional seat in 2018.

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