COLUMBIA, S.C. – With one stroke, President Donald Trump’s abrupt reversal on offshore drilling this week has loosened a political vise that was tightening around three Republicans senators running for reelection in coastal states where drilling is widely opposed.
Trump on Tuesday signed a memorandum instructing his interior secretary to prohibit drilling in the waters off both Florida coasts, and off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, for a period of 10 years.
For Trump, it was a dramatic about-face on a major policy decision, but one that could yield election-year dividends in key coastal states like Florida. It also provided relief to Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia, all Democratic targets. For months, the trio had been caught between the president’s bullishness on drilling expansion and the substantial, bipartisan opposition to the idea in their home states.
Few in the Senate have been as closely tied to Trump as Graham, who flew to Florida with the president for Tuesday’s announcement. He applauded Trump's decision as “great news” for South Carolina.
Graham’s evolving position on drilling has been a focal point for opponents, eager to portray the three-term senator, a frequent golfing partner of the president’s, as malleable to his influence. After the Trump administration’s 2017 announcement of a five-year plan to open 90% of the nation’s offshore reserves to private development, Graham said “there are ways to drill offshore that would not hurt tourism” — a $24 billion South Carolina industry — adding since then that he felt states should be able to opt out or in before drilling occurred.
A PAC supporting Graham's Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, has seized on drilling to try to erode support for Graham in the conservative-leaning state. The day before Trump’s announcement, as thousands of visitors flocked to South Carolina's beaches for Labor Day, the Lindsey Must Go PAC flew a banner plane with the message “L. Graham Wants to Drill 4 Oil Here.” It also launched a digital ad highlighting Graham’s purported support of drilling expansion and ties to the oil industry.
It's a line of attack that has proven successful before, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2018, Democrat Joe Cunningham became the first Democrat to flip a South Carolina seat from red to blue in decades, in part by seizing on Republican Katie Arrington’s support for Trump's drilling proposal.
The political dynamic is similar in Georgia, where — due to the retirement of longtime Sen. Johnny Isakson at the end of 2019 — both of the state's Republican senators are on the ballot.
Prominent Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, another Trump ally, and his Republican predecessor, Nathan Deal, have opposed drilling off the state's 100-mile (160 km) coast. State lawmakers have passed an anti-drilling resolution, as have several cities and counties in the state. Last year, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Savannah-area Republican who had spent years touting the potential benefits of drilling, wrote a letter asking Trump to exclude Georgia from any offshore drilling plans.
Perdue — seeking a second term and challenged by Democratic Jon Ossoff — previously said the issue would be a back-burner one for Georgia and that he valued a pursuit of energy independence but emphasized a need to ensure returns on drilling were worth the risk. He shied away from embracing Trump’s initial expansion plans, as mayors and elected councils of coastal Georgia cities adopted anti-drilling resolutions.
Loeffler, who assumed office earlier this year just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, has not made the offshore drilling debate a focus of her campaign. Her office didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
Her Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock, on Twitter called the expanded ban “just another political stunt to distract us from the constant damage Trump has done to our environment.” State Democrats criticized Trump’s announcement along similar lines.
Despite coastal objections, federal pursuit of drilling tests has continued apace. Albeit an incremental step, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration earlier this summer issued a ruling to allow applications for testing along the South Carolina coast, over some bipartisan objections from the state.
In his own reelection fight, Trump’s announcement has already potentially opened him to charges of flip-flopping, given his 2018 move to vastly expand offshore drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic oceans and support efforts to boost American energy production to lessen reliance on foreign sources. The drilling decision back then triggered immediate opposition from coastal governors up and down the Atlantic coastline, including Florida’s Rick Scott, who successfully lobbied for an exemption for his state that prompted others to do the same, including South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.
On Tuesday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accused Trump of “conveniently” changing his mind on the issue as the election draws near.
Reminding constituents of his close relationship with the president, Graham on Tuesday said he “led an effort to ensure President Trump included South Carolina in the announcement” once learning that the ban would be expanded.
“The decision by President Trump to include South Carolina meets the desires of our coastal communities and state’s leadership,” Graham said. “I very much appreciate President Trump for listening to our state and delivering for our people.”
Ben Nadler in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.