- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Green groups are opening their checkbooks ahead of the high-stakes November midterm elections, dolling out hundreds of thousands to protect what they call a “Senate firewall” against President Trump’s pro-fossil fuels agenda.

Rather than trying to unseat top GOP targets like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the country’s leading environmental organizations say this year is about defending some of their favorite Senate Democrats who are on the ballot.

Top beneficiaries are Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who represents a state President Trump won in 2016 and who is considered a prime target for the GOP this year.

“Big picture, the NRDC Action Fund is focused first and foremost on the Senate firewall, which is maintaining 41-plus votes in the Senate who will stand up against assaults on the environment. That’s our political priority No. 1,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of the powerful Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund “It’s more about protecting folks who have done the right thing on the environment, showing up and making sure they know we have their backs.”

Environmental groups’ spending is expected to dramatically increase over the next six months, as state party primaries wrap up and general election match-ups become set in stone.

But even so far, data show that political spending closely mirrors Mr. Curtis’s strategy of protecting Democratic allies.

As of March 30, environmental groups, their employees, or affiliated groups have funneled $202,630 to Mr. Whitehouse, an outspoken progressive who has become arguably the loudest voice in his chamber against Mr. Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Just this week, Mr. Whitehouse selectively released internal EPA memos that he argues prove Mr. Pruitt does not need the expensive, 24/7 security detail he’s had since assuming office in February 2017.

Environmental groups also have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to other Democrats up for reelection this year, including: $168,394 to Sen. Jon Tester of Montana; $159,380 to Mr. Heinrich; $129,785 to Ms. Baldwin; $108,629 to Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio; and a host of others, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

By contrast, in 2016 the top recipients of environmental donations — other than presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who hauled in by far the most money from green groups at $1.3 million — were Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, both of whom mounted unsuccessful efforts to oust incumbent GOP senators in their states.

Much of the money so far has come from the League of Conservation Voters, an influential force in Washington that’s capable of marshaling major political resources on behalf of the Democratic candidates it favors. Roughly 75 percent of the environmental donations to Mr. Whitehouse, for example, have come from LCV.

In a memo released in February, the group conceded that the “national potential for climate action looks bleak through Trump’s remaining three years in office,” a seeming acknowledgment that the prospect of booting out a significant number of Republicans and reconstituting Congress with environmentalist Democrats looks unlikely.

LCV said it intends to target governors’ races and state legislature contests, though the organization still argues that public sentiment in congressional elections will be firmly on its side by November.

“Members of Congress who are selling out our future to the corporate polluters bankrolling their campaigns will have a very tough path to reelection this year,” said Alyssa Roberts, LCV spokesperson. “Led by extreme Republican leadership, this Congress is harming our families by gutting enforcement for clean air and water standards — threatening our kids’ health — while passing unpopular legislation to drill in the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge despite bipartisan opposition and little demand for Arctic oil.

“Voters don’t want dirtier air and more pollution, and when they head to the polls they’ll replace those in Congress who have consistently put their polluter donors ahead of our families,” she continued.

On the other side of the spectrum, environmental activists have skewered Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who touts himself as proudly pro-coal and is almost always on the opposite side of energy and environmental issues as most others in his party.

When super PACS aligned with top Senate Democrats recently bought millions of dollars in advertising to highlight Mr. Manchin’s record on energy issues, environmental groups pounced.

“Democratic leadership needs to recognize that the American people are clamoring for candidates who embrace a progressive vision for the future of our country. Instead, this ad communicates to voters that the party is more interested in protecting moderate incumbents, no matter the long-term costs,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action.

Mr. Curtis also said Mr. Manchin won’t be getting much help in his reelection fight.

“He’s not somebody we’re leaning into,” he said.

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