No one in Whatcom County, Washington remembers anything like this. On November 5, the residents of this rural county, population 205,000, will vote, as they do every year, for a new slate of county council members. This year, though, the county election – which could have a profound impact on the U.S. coal industry, and on efforts to curb global warming – has drawn a national spotlight. With it has come nearly a million dollars in outside spending, poured into political action committees to influence the race -- including five and six-figure donations from a Wyoming coal company and a group run by a California billionaire and major donor to President Obama.
"If, two years ago, somebody had dropped $25,000 in outside expenditures on a local race, that would have been huge," says Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University. "It's an order of magnitude more than we've ever seen. It's so much it's hard to figure out how they're going to spend it."
Whatcom residents are being bombarded with fliers, radio ads, phone calls and door-to-door campaigners urging them to vote for or against council candidates believed to support a proposed $600 million port, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which, if constructed, would ship 48 million tons of coal annually from Wyoming and Montana to Asia. Coal-fired power plants – the chief cause of global warming – are shuttering in the U.S. thanks in part to Obama's new climate change regulations. Coal companies see the Gateway terminal as an economic lifeline. Environmental groups see it as a climate disaster in the making. And the Whatcom County Council will play an outsized role in determining the fate of the port: Over the next two years, the council will vote on two crucial siting permits which, if approved, could pave the way to the port's construction. If the council rejects the permits, it could freeze the project for years, perhaps permanently.
At the beginning of 2013, the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters scanned all elections taking place across the country, and chose three that it believed could have a major impact on global-warming policy. It then teamed up with a relatively new group, NextGen Climate Action, founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, an Obama donor who has led campaigns to protect his home state's cap-and-trade law, and to urge the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
"We identified three places where climate was very clearly on the ballot. We want to show up and we have to play to win," says Navin Nayak, political director for the League of Conservation Voters. The green groups chose to invest heavily in the Virginia governor's race, a June special election for Massachusetts senator – and the Whatcom County council race.
"Tom's view is that climate and climate change solutions need to be on the ballot in a way they never have before," says Michael Casey, a consultant with NextGen Climate Action. "What's common to all three efforts is that Tom is in these races because he sees a significant difference between the candidates."
Here's the twist: Typically, environmental groups are vastly outmatched in political spending by the fossil fuel and industry groups they oppose. In the 2012 campaign cycle, for example, coal and other industry groups teamed together on a campaign declaring that Obama and Democrats who supported climate policy were waging "War on Coal." The top-spending outside groups backing conservative candidates included American Crossroads, which spent $176 million; Americans for Prosperity, the group linked with the conservative oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, which spent $36 million; and the Chamber of Commerce, which spent $35 million. The League of Conservation Voters, far and away the biggest-spending environmental group in 2012, spent just $14 million. But this year, in the three races in which they chose to play, the green groups have outspent the coal and fossil fuel industry--and it appears possible that they'll get a three-for-three victory for their investments.
The Whatcom county race is unusual in ways beyond its possible impact on the global climate. Because the council functions as a judicial panel – a sort of mini-court – members can't publicly state how they'd vote on the coal port. But based on statements the candidates have made more generally about the environment and economy, green groups are paying for campaign material to support four Democratic and progressive candidates, while an outside group funded by coal interests is backing four conservative candidates.
Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund, which opposes the coal terminal has to date raised $671,202, including $150,000 from the national League of Conservation Voters, and $275,000 from NextGen. Spending in support of the terminal is a PAC called Save Whatcom, which has raised $165,641 to date, chiefly with contributions from a Wyoming coal company, Cloud Peak, and an Ohio company, Global Coal Sales.
Opponents of the terminal see the environmental groups, and billionaire Steyer, as the big-money out-of-state influencers, muscling their way into a local issue. "The other side is using out-of-state money. And the outside money, that's the biggest difference," says Kris Halterman, a Whatcom County bookkeeper who created the Save Whatcom PAC. "If we were to lose we would be devastated economically."
The group actively solicited contributions from the out-of-state coal companies that would benefit from construction of the coal terminal. "It allowed us to put out fliers and phone calls with our messaging," she says.
For now, the outcome of the Whatcom race remains uncertain, since there is no polling in the local race and the cash continues to flow.
"A week ago, it looked like the League of Conservation Voters was so far ahead, they had this thing," says Donovan, the Western Washington University professor. But now with fresh coal money pouring in at the homestretch, "it could level the playing field. The candidates could go to bed that night and not know the outcome."
THE VIRGINIA RACE
In Virginia, green groups homed in on the governor's race because the Republican candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, had emerged as a leading national skeptic of the science of global warming, and of efforts to stop global warming policy.
Overall, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has vastly outraised Cuccinelli, hauling in $26 million in contributions to the Republican's $16 million. Energy companies and environmental groups emerged as the biggest spenders – with green groups once again outspending fossil fuels.
Although McAuliffe, a former Democratic fundaiser, is hardly known as a green champion, environmentalists are backing him in order to ensure that Cucccinelli, who came under particular fire from the environmental community after launching a two-year probe into the work of former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, would lose. After the Democratic Governors' Association, the largest single contributor to McAuliffe's campaign is the Virginia chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, which donated $1.6 million to the Democrat. NextGen gave $674,000. The Sierra Club kicked in $144,000.
"People who don't believe in climate change should lose their jobs," says Casey, the NextGen consultant.
McAuliffe was happy to ride the wave of the green groups' support. Although he's never been outspoken about the need for climate policy--and at times waffled on whether he backed Obama's climate regulations—his campaign did run TV ads bashing Cuccinelli for his probe of climate scientist Mann, and appeared with Mann on the campaign trail.
On the other side, the energy industry donated $922,619 -- more than any other industry group -- to Cuccinelli's campaign. More than half that money -- $509,714 – came from coal companies, in bundles of $50,000 or $60,000. Richard Baxter Gilliam, a major donor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, and the founder of the Virginia coal company Cumberland Resources, donated $100,000. But for once, coal's largesse was outmatched by environmentalists.
Murray Energy Corporation, an Ohio-based coal company that contends that coal has no link to climate change, donated $80,000 to Cuccinelli's campaign. "Mr. Cuccinelli has supported the jobs in the United States coal industry. His opponent has not," wrote Murray spokesman Gary Broadbent in an email to National Journal. Asked why the coal industry had not come close to matching the environmental groups in spending to defeat Cuccinelli, Broadbent wrote, "We have no comment on that."
In Massachusetts, the green groups invested heavily in backing Democratic Rep. Ed Markey in his campaign for senator in a June special election. Markey, who won handily, had already been a favorite in that election, and it was hardly unusual for Massachusetts Democrat to back climate policy. But Markey made climate change his political raison d'etre. In his relentless focus on the issue, he emerged as something new: a climate candidate.
And Markey was rewarded. The League of Conservation Voters was the top contributor to his campaign, giving $188,671, while spending $821,000 on advertising in supportd of Markey. The idea in that race, says Nayak, was "to show candidates--if you talk about climate, if you're a climate champion-- we have your back."
So why didn't the coal industry spend more to protect itself in 2013? As with Murray Energy, representatives from several coal companies that had spent the three key races did not return calls or emails, or declined to answer the question. In D.C., the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents most of the country's biggest coal companies and which spent over $30 million on "War on Coal" themed advertising during 2012, said elections haven't been its focus this year; Obama's coal-plant limits have.
"It's an off-election cycle year," wrote Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the coal group. "The industry is focused on the EPA and trying to limit the damage its proposed and coming regs will have on jobs, businesses and consumers who will bear the brunt of the consequences through higher energy bills."
Sheehan's point Is well taken. While green groups were able to make their mark this year in a handful of races, it's hard to see how they'll be able to repeat that effort during next year's congressional midterm elections, or in the following presidential election cycle, when conservative superPACs and other interest groups are expected to come back out with spending in full force. Accordingly, Nayak says his group is likely to repeat its strategy from this year and pick a small number of races in which climate issues are clearly on the ballot and spend heavily on those.