Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley reversed his stance on the Keystone XL pipeline last year and is now benefiting from spending by an outside group funded by a billionaire who opposes the project, according to reports.
Braley, a four-term congressman, initially voted in April 2012 to expedite construction of the pipeline. The measure was part of a temporary funding extension for federal transportation projects.
Braley praised the pipeline at the time in a statement: "The pipeline project is an opportunity to create thousands of jobs in Iowa and the Midwest and reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Environmental concerns must be addressed, and this bill provides an avenue to air those concerns to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."
"Keystone XL has attracted rare bipartisan support because of the enormous economic benefits it will provide," he added. "It should move forward quickly once it’s approved."
Recent spending by groups that support Braley has raised questions about whether he switched his position on Keystone to benefit his campaign.
Senate Majority PAC, a Super PAC that aims to maintain a Democratic majority in the Senate and is run by former staffers for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), has spent almost $550,000 in support of Braley, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that Tom Steyer, a billionaire climate activist and former hedge fund manager, recently contributed $5 million to the Senate Majority PAC—making him the single largest contributor to the Super PAC this year.
Steyer has pledged to spend $100 million ahead of the midterm elections on climate issues, including efforts to block construction of the pipeline. He also has his own Super PAC, NextGen Climate Action.
Steyer is reportedly targeting states such as Florida, Iowa, and Virginia.
"A contribution to Senate Majority PAC, the way they spend it and use it, will be consistent with the criteria that we use to choose our states," said Chris Lehane, a spokesman for Steyer, in an interview with the Times.
Braley’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The Obama administration has indefinitely delayed approval of the pipeline in a move that is widely seen as political. Some Democratic candidates oppose Keystone while others in states with large oil economies support it, but the delay enables the party to mask those divisions for the elections this fall.
The administration’s indecision comes after the State Department’s environmental review of the project found that it would not have a "significant" impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The review also said construction would support about 42,000 jobs over a two-year period.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) previously criticized Braley for not breaking with the administration and advocating for the pipeline.
"Bruce Braley claims to be a moderate, but in Washington he just empowers the liberal Obama/Reid/Schumer/Pelosi anti-energy agenda which costs jobs in Iowa," said NRSC press secretary Brook Hougesen. "Iowa workers, businesses, and families have been crippled by the liberal agenda of more regulations, higher taxes, and the empowerment of bureaucrats at EPA that has crippled growth and created a mountain of uncertainty."
The pipeline would carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, down to Gulf Coast refineries. It requires approval from the administration because it would cross international borders.
The delay of the pipeline could spell trouble for Braley this fall. Among Iowa general election voters who support the project, 49 percent said they would be less likely to support a Democratic Senate candidate if President Barack Obama denied the permit to build it, according to a survey earlier this month by the Consumer Energy Alliance.
Braley, a former trial lawyer, generated criticism after he called Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" at a January fundraiser. Many viewed the comments as elitist in the farm-heavy state, and his poll numbers among likely Iowa voters subsequently dropped.
Five Republicans are vying for the nomination to face Braley in the general election. State senator and Iraq War veteran Joni Ernst has opened up a double-digit lead for the June 3 primary, according to a recent poll.
"Sadly, the policies pursued by this Administration and Rep. Bruce Braley have made growth in the energy sector harder every step of the way," he said. "We should increase domestic energy production by opening more federal lands and waters to development and fast tracking the permitting process for the infrastructure needed to bring resources safely to market, including the Keystone Pipeline."