EPA head Andrew Wheeler’s ongoing tour of swing states could rouse enthusiasm among President Donald Trump’s supporters, though any effect on the November presidential election is likely to be small, political analysts say.
Since late May, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has visited Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—all of which are likely battlegrounds in the November presidential election.
Wheeler isn’t the only Cabinet official who has hit the road. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently visited Arizona, Ohio, and Alabama, and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette has toured Florida and Iowa. Of those five states, only Alabama is considered firmly in Trump’s column.
In none of his speaking events have Wheeler’s remarks been explicitly political. Rather, he has focused on highlighting the EPA’s achievements under Trump. But political analysts said they see Wheeler’s trips as a thinly veiled attempt to lift Trump’s re-election campaign. The president has been trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in polling in some states he will need to win a second term.
“If he is doing it only in battleground states, I would say that suggests there is a political framework around it,” said Earl Baker, a former Pennsylvania Republican state senator and now a political strategist at Earl Baker Consulting.
Wheeler touted clean air improvements in Sheboygan, Wis., detailed efforts to clean up contaminated lands in Newlin Township, Pa., announced new members of the EPA’s Great Lakes Advisory Board in Muskegon, Mich., and awarded $300,000 to the city of Atlanta to clean up industrial sites and turn them into job-creating properties.
James Hewitt, an EPA spokesman, said Wheeler has resumed travel to “fulfill the agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment” as the nation moves toward reopening after the coronavirus pandemic.
The Trump campaign didn’t respond to an interview request.
‘A Favorable Nuance’
In Pennsylvania, Wheeler’s message was well-received by energy workers who see fracking as an economic lifeline, especially given Biden’s shifting public stance on the practice, Baker said. Biden doesn’t want to ban fracking, but his climate plan does call for a halt on new oil and gas fracking on federal lands.
“Think of the union workers,” Baker said. “This kind of visit could give a favorable nuance and call press attention. Natural gas is probably going to bring us back into prominence as a state. We have coal. We have oil. And we have a certain attitude in general toward the regulatory agencies.”
The Trump administration has made several moves to ease regulations on natural gas and coal production, including scrapping an Obama-era rule for fracking on public lands in 2017.
Tori Sachs, a political consultant and executive director of Michigan Rising Action, echoed that view, saying a pro-business message would resonate in her state among many voters.
“Talking about eliminating regulations, bringing back jobs, sending surrogates to talk about things like the [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement]—those kinds of things are definitely effective for highlighting the administration’s policy,” she said.
Charlie Gerow, a longtime political strategist and now chief executive officer of consulting firm Quantum Communications, agreed that Wheeler’s trips could help Trump’s re-election bid.
“Telling the story repeatedly makes a difference,” he said. “I’m sure the trip was non-political, totally legal, and proper. But nevertheless, you’d have to have your head in the sand to not believe these things have implications.”
Wheeler’s visits could also give voters the sense the administration recognizes people outside of the D.C. Beltway, according to Baker.
“It’s saying the administration is showing interest in your state,” he said. “All Pennsylvanians who are interested in the economy would appreciate that.”
David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said Wheeler’s visit to the state offers “a small positive bump.”
“I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on any one of these things individually,” he said. “But in the aggregate, these kinds of appearances and interactions help to shape public understanding.”
To Samantha Dravis, the former EPA associate administrator for policy during the early days of the Trump administration, touring the country is a key part of the EPA chief’s job description.
“It is appropriate for the administrator to speak in person to constituents in states like Michigan and Wisconsin that were very hard hit by overregulation during the Obama administration about what the agency is doing now,” said Dravis, now senior vice president at Clout Public Affairs.
That message is even more important now, because the coronavirus has locked down the economy, said Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy think tank.
“It’s time to get out and start explaining again,” Hayes said. “It’s time to start thinking about other things, like air quality and water quality.”
Josh Freed, founder of the climate and energy program at the think tank Third Way, said Wheeler’s message won’t win over voters who aren’t already firm Trump supporters.
“In politics, you need to have a basic level of credibility to have your claims pass the sniff test with voters,” Freed said. “And the Trump administration trying to claim any positive record on climate or environmental issues stinks to high heaven.”
In Freed’s view, Wheeler’s message about the Trump administration’s environmental record “is like an arsonist coming back to the scene of the fire to talk about fire safety.”
John Weber, the Democratic National Committee’s deputy director of battleground state communications, had an equally harsh assessment.
“Trump’s attacks on the environment are haunting him across the battlegrounds,” Weber said. “His talking heads can’t spin that reality with photo ops.”
In Booster Mode
Cabinet officials routinely travel to give speeches on their agencies’ activities, especially in election years, “nearly always in booster mode,” said Thomas Patterson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
He said he wasn’t aware of any studies that have examined the effect of such speeches on voters, but “most scholars would almost surely conclude that it’s a marginal advantage rather than a large one.”
Federal law prohibits officials from using government resources for campaign activity, but not for their official duties, Patterson said.
Wheeler has been accompanied on his visits by a handful of congressional lawmakers, all Republicans, including Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.), Bill Huizenga (Mich.), Glenn Grothman (Wis.), Lloyd Smucker (Pa.), Bryan Steil (Wis.), and Tom Tiffany (Wis.).
Of the four states Wheeler has visited recently, most polls show Biden with comfortable leads in Wisconsin and Michigan. Georgia and Pennsylvania are closer.
Hewitt, the EPA spokesman, didn’t respond directly to questions about any safety precautions Wheeler is taking while traveling during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sachs said his travels help signal to Americans that it’s safe to slowly reopen the economy.
“If people see Cabinet officials practicing the health guidelines, I think that sends a good, positive message that working on issues is still a priority for the administration,” she said. “Those problems didn’t go away when people had to stay home.”