Green SuperPACs Struggle Just Like Regular Enviro-Groups

Environmentalists are making use of the new independent-spending rules, but opponents of regulation still have the upper hand

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Just because a group has a SuperPAC, that doesn't mean it swims in cash.

Conservatives have undoubtedly gotten the better of things in the new era of deregulated campaign spending, but the left has taken advantage of the new rules, too, and environmental groups are no exception. They're having a hard time under the new fundraising and spending rules, however.

Two environmental SuperPACs have registered with the Federal Election Commission, and both can take in unlimited corporate and individual donations. Just like the interest groups that formed them, the green SuperPACs have struggled to keep up with their deep-pocketed adversaries.

The League of Conservation Voters, the main environmental group focused on election spending, jumped on the SuperPAC bandwagon early, forming one in July of 2010. Since then, the group has seen an uptick in spending among its three arms, which include a 501(c)4 social-welfare nonprofit and a traditional PAC.

"We ended up having our biggest year of spending in 2010 -- about $5.5 million among the three entities, which still pales in comparison to some of the corporate interest groups that are out there," said League of Conservation Voters Vice President of Communications Mike Palamuso. The organizations spent about $3.3 million in 2008, Palamuso said.

The Sierra Club formed its own SuperPAC in June of 2010. It spent just over $275,000 on the 2010 elections.

After the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in January of that year, another federal court decision in March 2010, on a complaint lodged by the group, opened the door for the creation of SuperPACs. Conservatives used the new rules to funnel impressive sums of money into ad campaigns attacking Democrats for supporting the cap-and-trade bill, pejoratively dubbed "cap and tax."

The Karl-Rove-initiated American Crossroads raised a reported $70 million to attack Democrats in 2010, while conservative 501(c)4 groups like Americans for Prosperity found themselves newly able to use undisclosed corporate donations to help fuel November's Republican House takeover.

For groups like the League of Conservation Voters, which operates primarily as a 501(c)4, the main benefit of new campaign-finance rules is a newfound ability to solicit donations specifically for use in campaigns. Environmentalists don't take in too many corporate donations, so even though Citizens United made it possible for 501(c)4 groups to take in corporate money and use it on elections, that hasn't helped environmentalists too much.

The League of Conservation Voters' SuperPAC has taken in its share of large donations. Between Aug 1, 2010 and Election Day, it gathered 14 donations of over $20,000, two of which amounted to $100,000 each. Before the two 2010 court rulings, the group would have been forbidden from raising that money explicitly for elections.

But while environmentalists are making use of the looser fundraising rules, structural challenges haven't changed. The opponents of environmental regulation, some of them energy companies themselves, have much deeper pockets than green advocates.

"It's an advantage for the other guys," Palamuso said of the new rules on independent political spending. "We are without a doubt outnumbered."

Image credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters