Every year, the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce puts out an advocacy agenda. Much of it reads like Mitch McConnell’s to-do list — cut regulations, lower taxes, rein in the minimum wage — with one notable exception. Coastal businesses are a hard “no” on offshore drilling.

“The number one priority for us is protecting our natural resources, our beach coastline,” said Robin Miller, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. Pointing to the Deepwater Horizon spill, she asked, “Why would we continue to expand drilling or add more in the Gulf of Mexico when we already saw what happened and the ramifications of that?” She is hardly alone in this view. On Saturday, demonstrators in nearly every coastal state went to the beach to protest offshore drilling.

Miller, who has been fighting offshore drilling since before Deepwater Horizon, said the 2010 disaster forever changed the politics of oil. The spill coated the Gulf of Mexico in a sticky sheet of oil that laid waste to sea life and drove away tourists, robbing coastal businesses of billions of dollars in revenue. As a result, Republican officials in coastal areas now look more like Democrats on offshore drilling. Most loudly oppose it. The rest, she said, “They just keep quiet about it.”

This has created a schism between Republicans in states like Florida and Georgia, whose constituents depend on beach tourism and fishing, and the White House, which wants to open virtually all U.S. waters to offshore drilling. President Trump must weigh the demands of anti-drilling Republicans in key coastal states against the wishes of some of the party’s biggest donors. He got a reprieve last month when a federal judge revived an Obama-era ban on Arctic drilling, forcing the administration to put its larger offshore drilling plan on ice while it appeals the decision. But make no mistake, the schism isn’t going away. Trump will have to reckon with voter outrage over offshore drilling in 2020 — or pay the price at the polls. Some say the choice is clear.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill as viewed from space, May 24, 2010. Source: NASA

In the years since Deepwater Horizon, support for offshore drilling has declined, particularly in communities affected by the disaster. Today, more Americans oppose offshore drilling than support it, particularly those living near the coast. Republicans are divided on the question. The bulk of GOP voters favor offshore drilling, but their support is tepid — most say that states should be allowed to ban drilling along their shores. For Republicans who oppose offshore drilling, on the other hand, it’s a make or break issue.

“If you don’t drill, you’re not going to alienate the Republicans who think it’s okay,” said Mac Stipanovich, a former Republican strategist based in Florida. “But if you do drill, you’re damn sure going to alienate those who don’t think it’s okay.”

This dynamic is playing out at the state level. Republican voters in coastal states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida tend to support offshore drilling, but in each of those states, Republicans have pushed back on Trump’s plan, in some cases allying with Democrats.

  • North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican, previously championed offshore oil exploration, but he has since softened his stance, feeling pressure from voters. Last year, Tillis watched two Republican incumbents in North Carolina lose primary races to challengers opposed to offshore drilling.
  • In the midterm election, South Carolina Republican Katie Arrington lost her House seat to Democrat Joe Cunningham, after two Republican mayors threw their support behind Cunningham for his opposition to offshore drilling. Currently, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is joining Democrats in suing the Trump administration to stop seismic testing for oil and gas off the coast.
  • Georgia’s Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan resolution opposing offshore drilling. Republican Governor Brian Kemp said he will fight to stop drilling off the Georgia coast.
  • After Trump unveiled his offshore drilling plan, then-governor of Florida, Rick Scott, pressed the administration to exempt his state. The administration promised no new drilling in Florida waters in what many saw as a politically motivated maneuver. It appears to have worked. Scott, who was running for a seat in the U.S. senate in 2018, narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent in an election where close to 70 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling.

More than a dozen coastal governors, including six Republicans, oppose Trump’s offshore drilling plan. Despite this, the president appears committed to drilling in U.S. waters. He has weakened regulations meant to prevent another Deepwater Horizon, and he appears willing to renege on the administration’s promise to prevent further drilling off the Florida coast. These moves could cost him voters in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, states he needs to win in 2020.

Given what’s at stake politically, Stipanovich expects Trump will change his stance on offshore drilling before the election. “The president is very skilled at creating problems that he can solve — to his benefit,” he said. He imagines the administration will threaten to open U.S. waters to offshore drilling and then Trump, at the last minute, will step in to exempt key states.

“I would expect the suspense to build, and then for Donald Trump to deliver the people of Florida from offshore drilling,” he said. “There will be a meeting of the minds. People will rub their chins. The president will listen to Governor [Rick] DeSantis, and then he, because he loves the people of Florida, will recede from this folly.” If this were to happen, it would represent the rare triumph of public opinion in Washington.

More often than not, elected officials make policy that caters to the preferences of donors or political backers. Republicans passed an unpopular tax cut in service to the donor class, and they continue to oppose universal background checks on guns, an overwhelmingly popular idea, out of deference to the NRA. But on offshore drilling, coastal Republicans are doing what’s popular. Why? Because a critical mass of Republican voters have shown they will vote on this issue. If Trump ignores their concerns, he does so at his own peril.

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.