President Donald Trump nominated several sitting Congress members to lead federal agencies, and high-profile elections to fill their vacated seats are under way. The election to fill CIA director Mike Pompeo’s Kansas House seat took place on April 11, 2017, and a Bernie Sanders-supporting Democratic candidate came within seven points of the Republican winner in a heavily red district that hasn’t gone blue since 1992. In a Georgia election to fill Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s seat on April 18, young Democrat Jon Ossoff took 48 percent of the vote, not quite enough to avoid a runoff against Republican Karen Handle, scheduled for June 20. An election to fill the House seat of former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, now Secretary of the Interior, is coming up on May 25 in another district that has reliably voted Republican but is now in play after Trump’s exceedingly unpopular first 100 days.
These elections are the first since Trump took office, and their results may represent Americans’ discontent with their new leader, whose record-low approval rating is now at about 42 percent. A Democratic win in any of the upcoming races could give the fractured party a much-needed boost as it prepares its 2018 campaigns in hopes of taking back the House and hampering the White House agenda.
In Georgia and Montana, independent political spending groups are shelling out millions of dollars to aid their favorite candidates. A Truthout investigation finds that among the biggest funders of the outside groups backing Republican candidates are fossil fuel companies, which tend to favor conservatives who will join the Trump administration in rolling back environmental regulations that limit their profits. Oil, gas and coal companies and trade groups, including Arch Coal, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum, have bankrolled conservative nonprofits that are spending millions of dollars to elect Republicans in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and Montana’s at-large congressional district. In the Georgia race, GOP-aligned political groups have accounted for roughly 94 percent of the huge amount of outside spending, yet Ossoff has a good shot at winning.
An Explosion of Outside Spending in Georgia
The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a super PAC founded in 2011 to boost Republican House candidates and funded by private interests, will spend at least $6.5 million in the GA-06 race, the most of any outside group. The committee has already reported independent expenditures of $4 million opposing Ossoff in Georgia. These funds translate into television advertisements, mail and digital ad campaigns and a get-out-the-vote ground game.
Since its founding, CLF has relied on conservative millionaires and billionaires and large corporations for its funds. So far in 2017, the group has reported receiving $250,000 from oil giant Chevron and $3.5 million from the American Action Network (AAN), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and CLF’s sister organization that is also partially funded by the fossil fuel industry. While 2017 data is not yet available, AAN has taken in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry over the years, including $250,000 from the American Petroleum Institute in 2012 and $35,000 from the American Natural Gas Alliance in 2010, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
During the 2015-2016 election cycle, the group got $1.3 million from Chevron, $1 million from Western Refining chairman Paul Foster, $500,000 from Devon Energy, $475,000 from coal company Alliance Holdings and $300,000 from Occidental Petroleum and its employees. Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam are CLF’s biggest donors, having given the committee at least $30 million since 2012.
The American Petroleum Institute ($10,000) and energy corporations Exelon ($50,000) and Southern Company ($25,000) contributed to Trump’s inauguration through CLF, according to data compiled by ProPublica.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has also poured $3.7 million into the GA-06 race, much of it opposing Ossoff and the rest supporting Handel. The NRCC gets its funds from the campaign committees of members of Congress as well as from corporate PACs and individuals. So far this year, the NRCC has received over $130,000 from Kelcy Warren, chair of oil and gas pipeline business Energy Transfer Equity, which is constructing the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline; $15,000 from the Arch Coal PAC; $15,000 from the Occidental Petroleum PAC; and $7,500 from Taylor Reid, COO of Oasis Petroleum.
In the 2015-2016 election cycle, Koch Industries, which operates oil and gas refining and pipeline businesses, donated nearly $1.3 million to the NRCC in a period where oil and gas businesses and executives combined to give $6.7 million to the group.
A nonprofit called Ending Spending, which also operates a super PAC called Ending Spending Action Fund, was funded by GOP mega-donor Joe Ricketts. His son, Todd, who recently withdrew himself from consideration to be Trump’s deputy secretary of commerce, took over both groups in 2012. Ending Spending has dished out over $1.3 million in the GA-06 race supporting Handel.
The linked groups combined to pour $17.6 million into the 2016 elections. Ending Spending’s donors are largely kept secret, but the American Action Network reported giving the group $250,000 in 2013. One year earlier, a major nonprofit that is part of the vast political funding network led by Charles and David Koch called the American Future Fund gave $525,000 to Ending Spending.
In the 2016 election cycle, the Ending Spending Action Fund took in $1.6 million from CLF and $160,000 directly from the oil and gas industry.
The US Chamber of Commerce launched a $1 million ad campaign on May 1 boosting Handel in GA-06, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Chamber’s independent expenditure committee keeps its donors secret, but the chamber is known for its support of big businesses and opposition to regulation and corporate taxes. In 2010, 55 percent of the Chamber’s revenue came from just 16 companies. The Center for Responsive Politics found that the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce — the money funnel that rich conservatives use to send their money anonymously to organizations in the Koch brothers’ giant political network — gave the Chamber $5.5 million from 2012-2014, and the American Petroleum Institute gave the Chamber $186,000 from 2008-2009. Members of the Chamber’s 125-member board include executives from coal company Peabody Energy, natural gas company Sempra Energy, oil company ConocoPhillips, natural gas utility Florida Power and Light Company and natural gas distribution business Southern Company.
Handel’s campaign just released its first ad since the primary, likely financed by the major outside spending benefiting her campaign. Ossoff is set to unleash a $5.2 million ad campaign financed by his astronomical campaign fundraising. The candidate’s campaign raised more than $8 million in the first quarter of 2017, much of it in the form of small donations, dwarfing the previous record for a Georgia congressional campaign, and now making it the most expensive in US House history.
Fossil Fuel Industry Goes to Bat for Friendly Montana Candidate
Through April 28, CLF reported spending nearly $1.7 million on ads and mailers against Democrat Rob Quist, who faces Republican businessman Greg Gianforte in the race for Montana’s only House seat.
The GOP candidate, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016, opposes the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas emissions standards and wants to open up federal lands in Montana to fossil-fuel exploration. Both candidates support the coal industry in Montana, which is home to huge coal reserves, but Gianforte denies that mining and burning coal has a significant impact on global carbon emissions, while Quist advocates major clean energy investments. Gianforte wants to “put out to pasture” environmental protections, such as the Clean Water Rule and the Clean Power Plan.
Meanwhile, Gianforte’s current campaign has taken donations from fossil fuel executives, including several employees of oil and gas companies Ballard Petroleum, Devon Energy, Energy Corporation of America, Oasis Petroleum and the investment firm Strata Resources. His family foundation has donated to the Koch-backed political group Americans for Prosperity and the think tank Heritage Foundation, also Koch-funded, which questions the impact of climate change.
Fossil fuel spending outside of political races is also seeing a major uptick, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Not only did oil, gas and coal companies and their executives provide 10 percent of Trump’s inauguration funds — a huge increase from the companies’ share of funds for Barack Obama’s second inauguration — they also spent 11 percent more on lobbying during the first quarter of 2017 than they did during the same period the year before.
The spending seems to be working, as Trump and his cabinet appear dedicated to doing all they can to increase profits for fossil fuel companies. Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have already slashed environmental regulations including the Stream Protection Rule, rolled back the Clean Power Plan, and sped up fossil fuel projects, including the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Zinke, who as interior secretary is in charge of conserving federal land, overturned a moratorium on coal leasing of federal lands in March and supports opening up these lands to more oil and gas exploration.
As the Georgia and Montana elections near, look for the dirty energy industry to keep the funds flowing.