Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Influencing Congress: Defenders’ Effective Offense

It’s a deceptively simple political strategy but it works for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

Rather than trying to elect dozens of friendly lawmakers, it’s been concentrating its money on just a few high-profile races and flooding them with money and volunteers.

It was this strategy in 2006 that allowed the group to help defeat Richard W. Pombo, the California Republican who at the time chaired the House Natural Resources Committee.

Armed with $60,000 worth of polling that suggested Pombo was vulnerable, the group spent $1.7 million through two political funds and fielded canvassers across his district with the message that Pombo was “America’s No. 1 wildlife villain” for helping developers, miners, and the oil and gas industry.

A Web site called PomboInTheirPocket.org posted more information. Pombo lost to Democrat Jerry McNerney by 13,000 votes.

The Washington-based wildlife group, founded in 1947 primarily to fight fur trapping, still mainly focuses on the welfare of predators such as wolves and coyotes. And it’s become an example of a shift in the direction of advocacy groups away from general issue campaigns and toward targeted efforts against individual politicians, while at the same time shielding the identity of political contributors.

This new wave of groups, organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code as “ideological education” groups, spent nearly $200 million in the 2007-2008 election cycle, more than each party’s congressional campaign committees, according to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute, an academic research group affiliated with George Washington University.

The Defenders in 2006 were involved in 26 races.

Its candidates won in 14, although most of the effort was against Pombo. “We decided that we’re going to be engaged and go after our weakest enemies,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife and its Action Fund. “We wanted to have an impact on legislation.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, accused the group last fall of raising money by distorting legislation to help Democrats under the guise of environmental protection.

“Campaigns to ‘save the cuddly animals’ or ‘protect the ancient forests’ are really disguised efforts to raise money for Democratic political campaigns,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor. “Environmental organizations have become experts at duplicitous activity, skirting laws up to the edge of illegality and burying their political activities under the guise of nonprofit environmental improvement.”

Last year, the group narrowed its congressional sights even further — to races in Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and particularly the high-desert plains of eastern Colorado. The Action Fund’s $1.1 million spent to defeat Republican Marilyn Musgrave was particularly potent given that Musgrave and her Democratic challenger, Betsy Markey , each spent $2.9 million on the race.

The environmental group broadcast four television advertisements and two radio spots branding Musgrave “one of the most corrupt members of Congress” and in the pocket of Big Oil.

Musgrave called the ads “millions of dollars of garbage” and her campaign manager compared the third-party spending to a boxing match without referees.

The group also deployed 48 campaign staffers who knocked on 83,000 doors in the district. Markey ended up winning in a walk, with 56 percent.

“It did give us additional respect for our issues,” Schlickeisen said. “It sent a message.” Meanwhile, the group was enlarging its lobbying, which increased from $270,000 in 2004 to $906,000 last year.

It also didn’t relax after the election. Since January, the Defenders have been trading accusations with GOP Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska because of her decisions to allow, among other practices, wolf hunting from helicopters.

Palin has branded Defenders an “extreme fringe group” that uses audacious fundraising appeals to attack a program aimed at curbing predators of moose and caribou.

Other Republicans defend the group. Sen. Michael D. Crapo , R-Idaho, said Defenders of Wildlife works collaboratively on divisive issues such as endangered species. “They’ve been willing to work with us, although they have a strong perspective,” Crapo said.

Meantime, the group has stepped up its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, spending $906,000 last year compared to $270,000 in 2004.

The group’s interests range from protecting sea otters to conserving roadless areas, but its top goal this year is climate change. The group says it helped push the first climate-change bill from committee to the Senate floor in the 110th Congress.

Despite the collapse of that comprehensive bill, the group won creation of the National Global Warming and Wildlife Science Center for monitoring climate change within the U.S. Geological Survey as part of the fiscal 2008 spending bill for Interior. Now Defenders of Wildlife has proposed designating 5 percent of the federal money from the sale of emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade proposal before Congress for efforts to curb global warming. “If you’re going to have a good program, you need it backed up by science,” Schlickeisen said.

The group also wants to force major federal landholders — the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service — to behave more like the National Park Service by taking wildlife management more into account.

Defenders of Wildlife recruited Rep. Ron Kind , a co-chairman last year of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, to sponsor the legislation as the group negotiated with interests such as Ducks Unlimited and state officials under the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“Given the large organization that they’ve been able to form, they were able to activate a lot of organizations and interest groups to get in touch with various offices,” said Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the Natural Resources and Ways and Means committees.

The Obama administration is considered friendlier to the group’s causes than the Bush administration, but not on every subject. Environmental groups were disappointed with the Interior Department would not revoke a Bush administration rule that limits the ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect polar bears, a threatened species.

“Just because Obama isn’t George Bush doesn’t mean his administration is going to be as pro-conservation as we would like,” Schlickeisen said. “Obviously we’re going to have to work hard there.”

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