Environmental Groups Gave Nearly a Million Dollars to Pro-Keystone Democrats

Green groups say the Keystone XL pipeline is "game over" for the fight against climate change, but the groups are still willing to cut campaign checks to Democrats who back it.

Fourteen Democrats sided with Republicans on Tuesday night to vote in favor of the Senate bill approving the oil-sands pipeline, which was defeated in a 59-41 vote. Collectively, those Democrats pulled in nearly $820,000 in contributions from environmental groups in the 2014 cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Those totals include contributions to senators' campaign committees and leadership PACs, and reflect six-year terms.

Colorado's Michael Bennet, the target of direct lobbying as the vote neared, has pulled in $179,011. Jon Tester of Montana, who holds a lifetime 88 percent score on the League of Conservation Voters' scorecard despite his pipeline support, has pulled in a whopping $270,000. Alaska's Mark Begich, an ally to the oil and gas industry but a supporter of action on climate change, received nearly $62,000 from green groups.

Other Keystone supporters like Montana's John Walsh ($54,100), North Carolina's Kay Hagan ($95,173), and Arkansas' Mark Pryor ($39,700) got green contributions.

As the Mary Landrieu-led Keystone bill neared its final vote on Tuesday, some of those Democrats were in the sights of those same environmental donors, who pulled out all the stops to lean on possible swing votes. The Natural Resources Defense Council called out possible fence-sitters on Twitter, lobbyists staked out on the Hill Monday and Tuesday, and youth activists even staged a sit-in in the offices of Bennet and Delaware's Thomas Carper, another pro-Keystone Democrat.

So how did those Democrats still manage to attract the support of greens who have held up the pipeline as a symbol of the movement? They've lent their support or backed action on climate change, including fighting back Republican attacks on the Obama administration's climate rules. Even though green groups warn that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline could mean production of the carbon-intensive oil sands in Alberta, Canada, EPA rules limiting emissions from power plants can ultimately have a bigger impact.

And some of those senators faced tough reelection fights that could have potentially kept the Senate in the hands of Democrats, offering a bulwark against GOP opposition to the president's climate rules. Hagan, for example, saw environmental groups spend another $5.7 million on her successful reelection bid this fall.

"We regularly support people who disagree with us at times. We evaluate the entire candidate," said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. "The Keystone pipeline is an important part of the equation, and I wouldn't just say it was one vote compared to other votes. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of important things that we're out there supporting, and the president's climate plan is something that weighed heavily this cycle."

Even some climate-friendly Republicans netted environmental support despite their backing of the pipeline. Maine's Susan Collins brought in some $30,000, and the Environmental Defense Action Fund spent $300,000 on her reelection campaign.

The most high-profile green donor, however, steered clear of Keystone supporters, as none of the four Democrats backed by Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate voted in favor of the pipeline (two were voted out in the midterms).