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Fossil Fuel Firms Spent Millions in Bid to Defeat Democrats in the Midterms

The industry gave Republican super PACs at least $32 million to fight Democrats such as Ohio’s Tim Ryan.

Democratic Senate nominee Rep. Tim Ryan speaks to reporters on November 6, 2022, in Gahanna, Ohio. Outside Republican groups spent at least $30 million attacking Ryan or boosting his GOP opponent.

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Ohio voters chose Trump-backed Republican J.D. Vance over Democrat Tim Ryan to fill a crucial Senate seat on Tuesday, and the race was a nailbiter until the end. Seeking support from working-class voters in a state that former President Donald Trump won twice, Ryan ran a heterodox campaign with little support from the national Democratic Party, but the race was so competitive that Republican groups swooped in and spent at least $30 million to counter the congressman and boost Vance. A good chunk of that money was a gift from the fossil fuel industry.

Ryan, a fierce critic of the trade deals that gutted manufacturing jobs across Appalachia and the Rust Belt, made it clear that he is no enemy of fossil fuels. Ryan wants Ohio to be a leading producer of clean energy technology, but he is also a big fan of fracking for natural gas, which provides jobs for his constituents and income for a region that saw coal mining and manufacturing collapse in recent decades. Ryan has backed away from supporting anything like a Green New Deal and is compared to Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat and coal champion from West Virginia who obstructed President Joe Biden’s agenda in an attempt to win concessions for the fossil fuel industry. While Republicans attack Ryan for voting against unpopular bills that would have deregulated polluters and opened sensitive ecosystems such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the fossil fuel lobby is more concerned about which party controls the Senate and how much Democrats can achieve before Biden leaves office.

The industry spent lavishly on the 2022 midterms in hopes of flipping Congress over to GOP control and thwarting any effort by Democrats to fight climate change by reducing oil and gas pollution. As of October 19, fossil fuel industry groups and companies, such as Koch Industries and Chevron, had donated $32.8 million to two super PACs aligned with Republican congressional leadership, according to a review of federal records by Sludge co-founder David Moore. The super PACs, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund, have spent more money on the 2022 midterms than any other outside groups.

Fueled by wealthy industries and billionaires, campaign spending by outside groups reached a record $1.3 billion by mid-October, and total spending could be higher after largely unregulated super PACs spent the final weeks ahead of the election flooding the airwaves and internet with ads. The Senate Leadership Fund, which operates independently but is dedicated to winning Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a GOP majority, was the top spender as of last month after reporting nearly $150 million in expenditures, according to OpenSecrets. The Congressional Leadership Fund focuses on House races and spent $110 million on ads attacking Democrats or backing Republicans.

National campaigns are not the only target. Flush with cash from record profits, the fossil fuel industry poured money into lobbying and campaigns at all levels of government in 2022, including in states, such as New York and California, where policymakers are pursuing cleaner energy and regulations to reduce the health impacts of pollution.

The expensive efforts by the fossil fuel industry and its conservative allies to sway the midterm elections comes as world leaders gather at the latest United Nations climate summit in Egypt. The World Meteorological Organization kicked off the summit on Sunday by announcing that the past eight years are on track to be the warmest eight years on record due to “ever-rising” greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere. Extreme heat waves, drought and devastating flooding affected millions of people and cost billions of dollars in 2022 alone, according to the UN weather agency’s new report.

Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said there are such high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that the international goal of preventing global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius “is barely within reach.”

“It’s already too late for many glaciers, and the melting will continue for hundreds if not thousands of years, with major implications for water security,” Taalas said in statement. “The rate of sea level rise has doubled in the past 30 years.”

With such dire warnings putting mounting pressure on politicians all over the world to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels, the industry is doubling down on maintaining political influence in Congress and over longtime allies in the GOP. For months now, Republicans have attacked Biden and the Democrats over high gas prices resulting from inflation and the war in Ukraine with misinformation that casts modest policies for addressing the climate crisis as the culprit behind high prices at the pump. Many of those policies have yet to be enacted or are only starting to roll out.

In reality, policy makers in the United States have little influence over volatile international oil and gas markets that set fuel prices. Gas prices remained high over the past year as fossil fuel companies posted record profits and showered CEOs and shareholders with bonuses and stock buybacks. Climate activists accuse the industry of gouging consumers, and Biden recently called for a new windfall tax if energy companies fail to bring down their prices.

“If they passed the rest [of the profits] onto the consumers, the price of gas would come down around an additional 50 cents,” Biden said in a speech last week. “But rather than increasing their investments in America, or giving American consumers a break, their excess profits are going back to their shareholders and are buying back their stocks and their executive pays are going to skyrocket.”

The oil industry is also putting its profits into politics. The $32.8 million donated by the industry to Republican super PACS looks a lot like the roughly $30 million spent on defeating Tim Ryan in Ohio, but there’s no exact way to know how corporations and campaign groups funnel their money. However, we can see the results in a flurry of campaign ads accusing Ryan of voting along with other Democrats. Ryan spent his campaign convincing voters that he is nothing like other Democrats, and certainly nothing like Vance, who also ran on working-class bona fides while receiving support from billionaire mega-donor Peter Thiel. Ryan still raised millions of dollars more than Vance — forcing Republican super PACs to show up with outside cash — but it wasn’t enough to overcome in increasingly red Ohio.

This story has been updated to reflect election results.

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