- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - Flush with cash from California billionaire Tom Steyer’s group, a Washington state environmental group is backing candidates this November to help Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee pass sweeping climate change legislation.

Inslee, who says the state has a moral responsibility to act on climate change, has gotten national attention for his efforts. But he’s struggled to persuade some lawmakers in his own state, in part because of a state Senate controlled by a GOP-dominated coalition.

The Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund this month received $750,000 from Steyer’s pro-environment super PAC, NextGen Climate Action. The state group is spending heavily to unseat three Republican incumbents in legislative races that could decide control of the state Senate.

A primary target is Sen. Doug Ericksen, who has been a vocal critic of Inslee’s ambitious carbon-reducing ideas, such as capping carbon emissions or requiring cleaner fuels.

Ericksen has chaired the Senate committee that deals with environment and energy issues for two legislative sessions, and Inslee’s environmental allies have seethed that the Republican has gutted or let die Democrat-backed bills on oil train safety, toxic chemicals and other issues.

This year “is definitely about electing a pro-environment Senate,” said Shannon Murphy, president of Washington Conservation Voters, which takes credit for helping to elect Inslee in 2012. “But it’s also about holding those elected officials accountable that are the biggest environmental offenders and telling them we’re not going to let it slide.”

“WCV is not an environmental group. It’s a Democrat front group,” Ericksen said. He added that he thinks voters won’t let a California billionaire and “downtown Seattle special interests” buy the election.

Ericksen is facing Democratic challenger Seth Fleetwood in the conservative-leaning district in northwest Washington. The district includes the liberal college town of Bellingham, two oil refineries and a large rural area of Whatcom County that borders Canada.

In 2012, voters in that area narrowly re-elected President Barack Obama and approved legalizing marijuana in the state, but they rejected legalizing same-sex marriage and picked Inslee’s opponent, Rob McKenna, for governor.

“It’s way more competitive than it was a couple weeks ago,” said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University. “The district would be very competitive for the Democrats if they outspent the incumbent.”

The district is also home to a controversial coal-export terminal proposed near Bellingham that would export as much as 48 million metric tons per year of coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia.

Last November, Steyer’s PAC gave $275,000 to Washington Conservation Voters to influence races for four seats on the county council. Local elected officials would have a role in permitting the Gateway Pacific coal-export terminal, so the races drew national attention and plenty of outside money. Coal interests also spent heavily to support pro-business candidates in that local election.

This year, the environmental PAC has raised $1.4 million, and spent a bulk of it primarily on three senate races, including in Pierce and King Counties. It passed about $345,000 to a newly formed group, Sensible Leadership for Whatcom.

“They’re off the charts in what you see them spending in the district,” Donovan said of WCV.

Ericksen has so far raised about $424,000, with most of his money coming from the state Republican Party, businesses and industry groups. Fleetwood has raised about $322,000, mostly from the state Senate Democrat campaign, teachers and individuals.

Fleetwood, a lawyer and former member of the Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council, said he hasn’t received any money directly from Steyer. “I have no control over what independent expenditures do,” he said.

Murphy downplays the money her group has received from the California hedge-fund founder, but also says it’s a vote of confidence in the group’s ability to mobilize people on the ground.

“We’re doing this to move the ball forward to address carbon pollution. It’s not enough to hold the ground.”

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