CAMPAIGN 2012:

Super PACs turning to energy donors to spread their message

Correction appended.

While super PACs linked to presidential candidates have drawn most of the spotlight -- and the biggest checks -- so far this election season, groups taking unlimited contributions to play in House and Senate races are starting to see their first cash infusions from donors with a stake in congressional energy debates.

The biggest energy-industry donations to a congressional super PAC, according to an E&E Daily analysis of campaign finance data, came from three coal players to American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC that counts former President George W. Bush lieutenant Karl Rove as a senior adviser. Other top-tier givers to congressional super PACs on both sides of the aisle have a less direct stake in federal environmental policy, such as private-equity titans and unions on the pro-Keystone XL side of the labor schism over the oil pipeline.

Two court rulings in 2010, including the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, empowered super PACs to spend unlimited donations from corporate, nonprofit and individual givers on the independent support of candidates. Super PACs aligned with candidates in the GOP presidential primary so far have spent more than $30 million combined, but President Obama's signal this week that he would begin contesting in the new money chase already is unleashing a furious race by Democratic groups to catch up to their conservative counterparts.

American Crossroads' $11.6 million haul during the last three months of 2011 included $425,000 and $100,000 respectively from coal companies Alliance Management Holdings and Alpha Natural Resources, as well as a $250,000 check from the founder of coal firm Cumberland Resources.

Both Alliance and Alpha -- which purchased Massey Energy Co. last year, 15 months after it bought Cumberland -- are members of the National Mining Association, the coal industry's Washington trade group and a frequent foe of U.S. EPA regulation.

American Crossroads also received $1 million in November from Indiana-based Whiteco Industries, a construction and advertising company that belongs to a public-private partnership formed to encourage businesses to reduce ozone and other air pollution. Another $250,000 came in December from Janet Duchossois, wife of the CEO of a private company that controls the lighting company Heath Zenith, which has patented an energy-efficient technology for its products.

The president of Silver Eagle Distributors, a world-leading Anheuser-Busch beer distributor that began converting its vehicles to natural-gas power in 2006, gave American Crossroads $100,000 in December. The super PAC also got $50,000 that month from Daniel Loeb, whose Third Point hedge fund was heavily focused on energy companies as of mid-2011, according to an analysis by the financial website Seeking Alpha.

Reports tallied by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) show that American Crossroads' dominance over other super PACs in the hunt for energy-linked cash last year mirrors its broader fundraising advantage, running second only to the Mitt Romney-aligned Restore Our Future.

"I wouldn't be surprised," CRP executive director Sheila Krumholz said in an interview, if the Rove-led group's energy-linked cash tracks with "its overall total." Broadly speaking, she attributed the less-direct flow of energy-aligned cash to congressional super PACs as a throwback to "the heyday of soft money," before 2001's McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law limited the amount of money that party committees could raise and spend.

Most GOP super PAC supporters so far are "free-market, free-enterprise conservative donors who in general support the development of domestic energy," Krumholz added, "but I think it's driven more by ideological motivation than necessarily by the narrow economic interests of a particular company."

Democrats' top three

The three top-grossing Democratic-aligned congressional super PACs last year include House Majority, formed to help the party claw its way back in the lower chamber, and Majority, a counterpart that focuses on maintaining the Democrats' control of the Senate.

About half of the $910,000 that House Majority took in during the last quarter of 2011 came from labor unions that back the controversial Keystone XL pipeline between Canada's oil sands and Gulf Coast refineries -- a project that Republicans are pushing hard over the objections of many senior Democrats. The Teamsters union gave $200,000, the Laborers' International Union of North America gave $150,000, while the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers and Plumbers and Pipefitters Union each gave $50,000 to the House super PAC.

The Teamsters' and Laborers' donations came during the December climax of a GOP campaign to fast-track the pipeline that ended with attachment of a deadline for President Obama to rule being added to a 60-day payroll tax-cut extension. Reached for comment, Teamsters spokeswoman Leigh Strope described the donation as aimed at supporting "candidates for Congress who are standing up for working families" and not a statement on "any particular issue."

Strope added that the Teamsters also gave $200,000 last year to Majority, the Senate Democratic super PAC. A spokeswoman for the Laborers did not return a request for comment on its donation.

Both the Majority and House Majority super PACs received $100,000 checks last year from Bernard Schwartz, a longtime Democratic donor and leading advocate for a congressionally chartered National Infrastructure Bank that would steer state and federal funds to major transportation and energy projects.

A leader of the board of trustees of centrist-Democratic think tank Third Way, Schwartz also routed $210,000 in October to the Economic Innovation Action Fund, a new super PAC run by former Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) that has yet to spend money in specific races.

Also on the donor list for Majority, the PAC that Democrats formed to help hold onto their 53-seat Senate foothold, was private-equity investor David Bonderman, whose TPG Capital made a widely publicized investment last year in domestic natural gas fields at a time when the fuel is reaching historic lows. Bonderman, also on the General Motors Co. board of directors, gave $35,000.

As natural gas vies with coal over the future of the American electric grid, the two industries can occasionally line up on opposite sides of Congress' partisan divide during election seasons, Sunlight Foundation editorial director Bill Allison noted in an interview. "Sometimes they back Democrats in the hope of making coal more expensive to benefit their bottom line," Allison said, whose group is a nonprofit watchdog supportive of stricter campaign finance rules.

A third major Democratic congressional super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, counted two six-figure energy-linked donations as part of its $2.2 million take during the second half of last year. Lee Fikes, president of Dallas-based Bonanza Oil Co. and a veteran Democratic backer, gave $150,000 in December, while Anne Earhart, an heir to the Getty oil fortune who now runs a two-decade-old foundation aimed at promoting ocean health, gave $200,000 in September.

The right flank

Behind American Crossroads in the GOP-allied ranks last year were two super PACs similarly affiliated with nonprofit groups that can shield the identity of their donors while making unlimited transfers to their more overtly political PACs.

The parents of these super PACs, Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks, both played a leading role in the rise of conservative opposition to clean energy subsidies amid the political flap over the Solyndra bankruptcy.

David MacNeil, a senior adviser at the Silvercrest Asset Management Group investment firm, gave $20,000 to Club for Growth Action in December. A publicly available Silvercrest bulletin on first-quarter investing stated that "given the instability in the Middle East, notably among some of the important oil producing countries, we favor an overweight position in the energy sector."

Kicking in $100,000 to Club for Growth's super PAC in August was Robert Mercer, co-CEO at the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. According to a Bloomberg analysis of Renaissance's third quarter 2011 reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the fund maintained a $102 million investment in National Oilwell Varco, which produces land and offshore drilling rigs, and a $67 million position in Freeport McMoRan, a gold and copper mining company.

Mercer's donation put him on the opposite side of the election from Renaissance founder James Simons, who retired from the hedge fund in 2010 and gave $500,000 in November to the Senate Democratic Majority super PAC.

FreedomWorks reported notably fewer direct donations to the Federal Election Commission, according to E&E Daily's analysis. The super PAC did receive $10,000 in September from Michael Keiser, who built the sprawling Bandon Dunes golf resort on Oregon's southern coast and founded a nonprofit that aims "to unite conservation and economic interests" in that region.

Looking ahead, Allison of the Sunlight Foundation noted that last year's somewhat sparse flow of energy-linked money to congressional super PACs -- which can enlist lawmakers to help raise money, so long as they steer clear of direct coordination -- stands to grow heavier as the consequences of Obama's go-ahead for unlimited fundraising trickle down into House and Senate races.

"Are you going to see American Crossroads or the House Majority PAC [hold] an energy event to cater to these industries?" Allison wondered. "I'm not sure ... but I imagine that because of the high stakes involved and the necessity of raising so much money, courting these industries is something you're going to see super PACs on both sides of the aisle doing."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly linked David MacNeil to the company MacNeil Automotive Products.