Throwing green money after bad

Prominent pro-climate GOP donors are bankrolling Republicans with mixed and poor climate records.

CREDIT: iStock/Chris Gorgio/Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: iStock/Chris Gorgio/Dylan Petrohilos

There may be no subject more politically polarizing than climate change — and the chasm between the parties on that issue only seems to widen as time goes on.

This year’s GOP platform blasts “Democratic party environmental extremists, who must reach farther and demand more to sustain the illusion of an environmental crisis” and pledges to crack down on the Environmental Protection Agency. The party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has called climate change a “hoaxover and over and over. And Congressional Republicans have done just about everything in their power to block attempts at cutting fossil fuel emissions and promoting clean energy.

So when Republican donors like Jay Faison say climate change is a real problem and his party needs to address it, people take notice. Last year Faison pledged $175 million to push the GOP toward climate action through his nonprofit ClearPath Foundation and its political arm, the ClearPath Action Fund. Faison says he wants to shift the focus from climate science to climate solutions — namely, clean energy.

CREDIT: ClearPath Action website
CREDIT: ClearPath Action website

“What we’re trying to do is prove to the party, through these races, that clean energy wins races, to build a political safe space for the Republican Party to talk about this,” he told the New York Times. Because if there’s one thing voters in both parties seem to agree on, it’s the promise of clean energy.

As of October 24, ClearPath Action has already spent more than $2.1 million on independent expenditures in support of Republican candidates up for reelection this fall.

Faison is part of a small but increasingly vocal group of prominent GOP donors who say action on climate change, clean energy, and carbon emissions is essential for humanity’s future. These include hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson, real estate developer Trammell S. Crow, metal refiner Andrew Sabin, and a political organization called Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES). In addition to the millions these donors have already provided, CRES announced this month that it would spend more than $1 million to back 10 Republican incumbents.

The stated intent behind these expenditures is undoubtedly positive, but are those millions actually going to elect Republican candidates who will break from their party and champion climate action? A deeper look at the recipients reveals a very mixed bag: While some of the recent spending has aided the few Republicans who have relatively moderate records on environmental issues and acknowledge humans contribute significantly to climate change, many of the biggest expenditures have supported those with spotty or poor records on climate and clean energy.

The donors

Faison made a name for himself as the founder of SnapAV, an audio/visual company based in Charlotte, North Carolina. When he sold his stake in the company, he created ClearPath, a nonprofit with a mission of accelerating “conservative clean energy solutions.” He told reporters in 2015 that as far as climate change is concerned, there are “a lot of good solutions, but we are not going to get there if we keep arguing about the problem.”

“I’m interested in encouraging, defending and supporting Republicans.”

Faison also announced a “political action fund” to “champion Republican candidates and legislation that support market-based solutions for clean energy and climate issues.”

“I’m interested in encouraging, defending and supporting Republicans,” he added, citing the $500,000 he personally donated in June 2015 to a super PAC supporting Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). Faison called her “forward-thinking, [and someone who will] recognize the risk of climate change and believe America can accelerate its inevitable transition to clean energy without harming the economy.”

Julian Robertson Jr. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew
Julian Robertson Jr. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

In addition to his nine-figure donation to ClearPath, since the start of 2014, Faison has also given five- and six-figure donations directly to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee (the campaign arms of the Congressional Republicans), to pro-Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush super PACs, and to more than a dozen Republican incumbents.

ClearPath Action has also received a $500,000 boost from Julian Robertson Jr., the billionaire founder of Tiger Management. Robertson, who serves on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund, has pushed for the philanthropic community to “move fast to support efforts to curb climate change.”

Throughout the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, Robertson contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Republican National Committee, and the anti-government Ending Spending Action Fund super PAC. He also invested about $1 million to support Jeb Bush and $500,000 to support John Kasich in their presidential campaigns, and gave thousands to other Republican candidates and incumbents.

(Robertson made news in 2012 when he defended his $1.3 million donation to a super PAC supporting then-climate skeptic Mitt Romney. Robertson said he was confident Romney would back measures to combat climate change if elected president, despite what the candidate was saying at the time.)

A second political organization working to move the Republican Party on climate issues is Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES). A tax-exempt nonprofit with an affiliated political action committee, CRES calls action on climate change a “national priority” and aims to build “Republican support in the House and Senate for policy solutions that will ensure American-made energy is cleaner, cheaper, and reliable.” So far this election cycle, it has spent more than $1.1 million to back GOP “clean energy champions on the Hill.”

Three of CRES’ “clean energy champions”: Rep. Joe Heck, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Richard Burr CREDIT: AP Images
Three of CRES’ “clean energy champions”: Rep. Joe Heck, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Richard Burr CREDIT: AP Images

Two other outspoken conservative donors have called on the Republican party to accept the reality of climate change and back measures to address it. One is Andrew Sabin of Sabin Metal Corp., who has bankrolled Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and said that “at the end of the day, there’s no question that science proves there’s climate change.”

Sabin told the New York Times in a recent profile that he hopes to save the planet, but also to elect Donald Trump. “I don’t think he believes half the things he says,” Sabin said when asked about Trump’s promise to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and abandon the Paris climate agreement. “There are good checks and balances… He won’t be able to do whatever he wants.” Sabin recently gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory fund.

The other GOP donor pushing climate action is Trammell S. Crow, former CEO of the Dallas development company Trammell Crow Co. and longtime environmental activist. “I’m trying to broaden the Republican Party in my own little way,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 2014. Both Crow and Sabin have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, party committees, and outside groups since the 2014 cycle.

Who is on the receiving end of these donors’ efforts to move Republican politicians forward on climate change and clean energy? A ThinkProgress analysis found that many of the incumbents they supported are on the record rejecting or casting doubt on the scientific consensus regarding the reality of climate change and the substantial role of human activity. Some have lifetime scores from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which rates members of Congress on their environmental records, below 10 (on a scale of 1–100). And some of the candidates receiving the most money have records that are less than green.

The politicians

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the donors’ largesse is Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), on whom they have collectively spent over $1 million (at least $136,187 from ClearPath Action, $463,887 from CRES, $505,400 from Faison, $5,400 from Robertson, and $5,300 from Sabin) over the past two cycles.

CREDIT: Clear Path Action website
CREDIT: Clear Path Action website

Ayotte’s record on climate and environmental issues is decidedly mixed. She’s demonstrated a willingness to break from her party of late, joining a handful of other Republican senators last year in voting yes on a symbolic amendment that acknowledged the substantial role of human activity in driving climate change. She also teamed up with three of her Republican colleagues to create a working group to discuss environmental protection and clean energy innovation.

Environmental issues haven’t always been at the top of Ayotte’s agenda, however — fueling speculation that her tough reelection fight may be motivating her newfound commitment to the cause (her opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, has a strong record of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and growing renewable energy). Ayotte’s lifetime LCV score, is 35, up from 26 the previous year. As recently as 2010, she expressed doubt that the evidence behind human-caused climate change was “conclusive.”

While she supports President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a proposal that would cut power sector emissions across the country, Ayotte has voted to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases in the past. She has also voted to maintain the tax breaks long enjoyed by the oil industry, and against a measure calling on congress to extend tax credits for the wind industry.

Ayotte is one of the top 10 recipients of oil and gas industry contributions in the Senate this year. She has come under fire from the left for refusing to meet with Obama’s pick for Supreme Court justice, an appointment that has major bearings on the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, and for continuing to support Trump (after video showing Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women became public this month, Ayotte said she would write in his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence).

Another Republican incumbent locked in a tight race, and a key recipient of pro-climate GOP mega donor contributions, is Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). Burr has gotten at least $391,816 in help from ClearPath Action, $120,100 from CRES, $10,400 from Faison, and $5,000 from Sabin since the start of 2014.

Unlike Ayotte, Burr has made no discernable shift toward the left on climate or environmental issues. His lifetime LCV score is 7. While he voted for a symbolic amendment acknowledging the reality of climate change, he voted against two others that recognized the role of human activity. He opposes the Clean Power plan even though 66 percent of North Carolina voters support it, according to a poll conducted earlier this year. And he has voted to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases and to prohibit any further emissions reductions aimed at addressing climate change.

Burr has maintained a cozy relationship with fossil fuel interests over the years. They have given generously to his campaigns and, according to a September report from McClatchyDC, he has continually voted in line with their interests. He has been a strong supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline and increased oil and gas drilling, on and offshore.

While both Burr’s spokespeople and the ClearPath website say he supports all forms of domestic energy, and has been “one of the strongest advocates in the Senate” for wind, solar, and hydropower, his record indicates otherwise. Burr co-introduced legislation in 2010 to encourage natural gas vehicles, nuclear power, and renewable energy tax credits — but that measure is an outlier in the full scope of his record. He has repeatedly voted against clean energy tax credits, against a renewable electricity standard, and in favor of stripping $60 million from military funding for advanced biofuels.

Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is happy with Burr’s record: They gave him a 100 percent lifetime score on environmental issues, citing his support of Keystone XL and his opposition to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) has been aided in his close bid for the Senate by at least $268,903 from CRES, $5,400 from Faison, $10,400 from Robertson, and $5,400 from Sabin.

Heck — whose campaign has also received generous support from the Koch brothers — has a lifetime LCV score of 8 and was named one of the organization’s “Dirty Dozen” candidates this year. While announcing the dubious honor, the group called him “a climate change denier who would rather fight the expansion of clean renewable energy than protect the health of our families.” Heck’s spokesman disputed LCV’s position, saying the candidate has been a “strong supporter” of solar jobs in Nevada.

While clean energy advocates in Nevada welcomed the announcement of the Clean Power Plan, Heck opposed it, saying “this plan is not the all-of-the-above energy strategy needed to boost job creation and reduce energy prices for families.” While he is an outspoken advocate for fossil fuels, Heck’s record on clean energy does have some bright spots: He co-sponsored legislation to boost renewable energy sources on public lands and voted in favor of funding clean energy and energy efficiency; but he also voted against another clean energy funding measure and in favor of eliminating energy efficiency standards for light bulbs.

CREDIT: Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions website
CREDIT: Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions website

As recently as 2012, Heck dodged the question of whether climate change is happening. He has voted repeatedly to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases and to block various government agencies from assessing or reporting on the impact of climate change. Heck has long enjoyed the backing of the Koch brothers and their various political groups and, as a recent ThinkProgress investigation found, that is particularly true in his current bid for the Senate. He has an 82 percent lifetime score on environmental issues from AFP.

Another key Senate race is playing out in the swing state of Ohio, where incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R) has benefited from at least $387,910 from ClearPath, $1,325 from CRES, and $15,300 from Faison. Like Heck, Portman was named one of the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen” for continually aligning himself with fossil fuel interests. His lifetime LCV score is 20 and it’s not trending in a positive direction — his 2015 score was just 8.

In a series of symbolic votes last year, Portman acknowledged the existence of climate change but stopped short of recognizing the outsized role of human-caused emissions. A ClearPath ad claiming Portman acknowledged the significant contribution was taken down this month. Portman also voted for a separate amendment stating Congress has a responsibility to reduce emissions and combat climate change, but he is strongly opposed to the most ambitious federal proposal for reducing emissions, the Clean Power Plan. He even introduced an amendment to help states opt out of EPA greenhouse gas regulations, prompting an attack ad from the National Resources Defense Council.

Portman’s proponents point to the fact that he worked to get bipartisan energy efficiency legislation signed into law last year. But, as Grist pointed out, he also “sided with the fossil fuel industry on all of its major priorities, such as voting in favor of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, in favor of making it easier to build liquefied natural gas export terminals, and against closing the Halliburton loophole.”

CREDIT: ClearPath Action ad
CREDIT: ClearPath Action ad

This cycle, Portman’s reelection bid is benefiting significantly from Koch-backed groups like AFP — giving 40 percent of the $32 million outside groups have spent on his behalf so far, according to an InsideClimate News analysis. Those groups have worked to paint his opponent, former governor Ted Strickland, as anti-coal. Portman has a 100 percent rating on environmental issues from AFP.

Some of pro-climate and clean energy GOP donors also gave substantial amounts to their preferred Republican presidential candidates. Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) benefited from at least $44,145 from Faison, about $1 million from Robertson, and at least $91,576 from Sabin. Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) benefited from at least $527,700 from Robertson.

Bush and Kasich both acknowledged the reality of climate change in their presidential bids, but they demurred on how large of a role human activity plays. Kasich expressed his support for promoting clean energy and energy efficiency, but as governor, he froze the state’s successful renewable portfolio standard and criticized clean energy and climate action at a campaign town hall earlier this year. Bush’s energy plan didn’t even mention renewable energy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who often talked about his belief in climate science during his unsuccessful presidential campaign but has an LCV lifetime score of just 11, benefited from at least $122,675 from Faison and $5,200 each from Robertson and Sabin. CRES spent at least $252,289 in support of his 2014 reelection.

Other top Republican beneficiaries included Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (lifetime LCV score of 65); Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida (lifetime LCV score of 23); Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho (lifetime LCV score of 7); unsuccessful 2014 Massachusetts Congressional candidate Richard Tisei; climate science skeptic Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa (lifetime LCV score of zero); and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (lifetime LCV score of 20).

The rationale

ThinkProgress reached out to CRES, ClearPath’s Faison, Robertson, Sabin, and Crow to explain the reasoning behind donating to Republican candidates with mixed (or worse) records on clean energy and environmental issues.

Faison said, in an emailed statement, that he and ClearPath “have a long-term plan to work with people across our entire party who have a willingness to put clean energy and environmental issues closer to the top of their agenda. When you look at all clean energy sources — including our biggest source of carbon-free power, nuclear — many Republicans have admirable records and we’ve seen their stances strengthen and leadership grow in recent years.” He cited the Carbon Capture Act and Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act as examples of “progress on conservative clean energy solutions.”

“When you look at all clean energy sources… many Republicans have admirable records.”

Faison also argued that “LCV’s scorecards have become a partisan tool rather than an objective measure of clean energy support. For example, they don’t include (and even penalize) votes backing such carbon-free resources as advanced nuclear and hydropower.”

Robertson told ThinkProgress through a spokesman that he has “consistently supported Republicans who are strong on clean energy solutions as well as those improving their stances and leadership.”

“I am proud of the candidates I’ve supported and also that ClearPath has supported as well,” he said.

The other donors have not responded to ThinkProgress inquiries about their donations.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

While climate science remains a politically polarizing issue, renewable energy and energy efficiency measures appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. A recent survey of Republican and conservative independent voters in Ohio, for instance, found that 72 percent want Republican candidates to back policies that boost clean energy.

Their preferences aren’t lost on these mega donors. As Grist’s Ben Adler observed, Faison’s endorsements of Burr and others with poor climate records demonstrate that he is prioritizing Republican control of Congress over climate and clean energy. Adler noted a July memo in which Faison wrote, “If Republicans are going to keep the U.S. House and Senate, our candidates and our party must go on the offense on clean energy to win over swing voters.”

Sabin has previously suggested he can change Republicans’ minds on climate change. “With a lot of Republicans, they just need to be educated,” he told the Wall Street Journal last year. What’s more, he told the Washington Post in 2014, his massive political giving can help him sway politicians on issues he cares about. “You have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues… They know that I’m a big supporter.”

Can an emphasis on clean energy move Republicans who are politically inclined to ignore or dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding climate change and the need to swiftly address it? New research from sociologists Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright suggests no. “As long as rank-and-file Republicans vote for conservative candidates, and those candidates remain steadfast in opposition to climate change action, the former’s receptivity to climate-friendly policies remains almost irrelevant — for the Congress they help elect will be highly unlikely to give such policies any consideration.”

And even if these activists are successful at moving a few Republicans, climate science deniers lead House and Senate Republicans and control those chambers’ legislative agendas. Their efforts could once again ensure that no climate action or clean energy progress makes it through Congress in time to avert catastrophe.