CAMPAIGN 2012:

Environmentalists' allies in Senate need to restock campaign accounts

More than a dozen senators with strong environmental records who are up for re-election next year entered the last quarter of 2010 with less than $1 million in their campaign accounts -- raising some questions about their electoral viability and giving green groups more to worry about in a changing political climate.

Political observers will be looking closely at the next round of fundraising reports, covering the last three months of 2010 and due to be delivered Monday, for clues about whether these allies of environmental groups plan to seek additional terms. Three senators have already announced their intention to retire: Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with Democrats.

Of the 30 other senators up for re-election, 19 did not hit the million-dollar mark in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission records. Thirteen of those senators scored high marks from the League of Conservation Voters for their votes on environmental legislation during the first half of the 111th Congress.

A dozen senators who are up for re-election in 2012 received perfect scores from the environmental group for their votes on clean energy, public lands, offshore drilling and water bills, among other legislation. These are:

  • Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who had just $26,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30.
  • Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who had $76,000 in the bank.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had $111,000.
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who had $312,000.
  • Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who had $365,000.
  • Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who had $471,000.
  • Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who had $503,000.
  • Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who had $517,000.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who had $576,000.
  • Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who had $819,000.
  • Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who had $872,000.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who had $885,000.

Some of these senators are more vulnerable at this point in the election cycle than others. Tester and Webb are certain to be top Republican targets -- two Republicans, including former Sen. George Allen, are already competing to take on Webb. And Akaka and Bingaman could also face well-backed GOP challengers. Republicans are trying to recruit former Gov. Linda Lingle to take on Akaka in Hawaii. And in New Mexico, former Rep. Heather Wilson (R) is taking a serious look at challenging Bingaman.

Another potentially vulnerable environmental champion is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who scored 91 percent from the LCV in the first half of the 111th Congress and had $815,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30. Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) is already running to take McCaskill on, and Rep. Sam Graves and the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, Ann Wagner, are among the other Republicans eyeing the race.

McCaskill said she is not worried about money despite having to run in the ultimate swing state.

"You don't have to have the most money to win, you just have to have enough money," she said.

At least four of the senators on the LCV's honor roll are considered potential retirees: Akaka, who will be 88 on Election Day 2012, Bingaman, Webb and Kohl. The Wisconsin senator's fundraising totals are never indicative of his political plans, however. Kohl, a retail magnate who will be 77 next year, bankrolls his own campaigns and generally does not put much cash in until the election draws nearer.

Several of the senators up for re-election not only score high on environmental issues but serve on key environmental and energy committees. These include Sanders, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee; Cantwell, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Cardin, who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee; Bingaman, who is the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Whitehouse, who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee; Carper, who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee; and Gillibrand, who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

For her part, Cantwell said she had more important things to worry about in 2010 than her own war chest.

"I'm glad that I spent time helping my colleagues [in the 2010 campaign] and so I'm glad they were successful. Like Sen. [Patty] Murray [D-Wash.]. I feel like I focused on what needed to be focused on particularly in the West," she said.

Carper said he spent time over the Christmas recess putting together his finance committee.

"In the end you can only spend wisely so much money in a state like Delaware," he said. "We'll have what we need. We'll be ready to go whoever runs. We'll be ready."

Still, the amount of money in these senators' war chests is far below the amounts thrown around in the midterm election cycle, which set senatorial campaign spending records. California Republican Carly Fiorina spent $5.5 million of her own money on her unsuccessful bid to win the seat away from Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer; in Connecticut, Republican Linda McMahon spent $46.6 million of her own money in her unsuccessful bid to win the seat vacated by Sen. Chris Dodd (D). She was defeated by Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who was then the state's attorney general.

Watching midterms campaigns that broke spending records, McCaskill said, "Honestly it makes me sick to my stomach that [fundraising] has to be a focus. It is so wrong. But it is what it is and we are going to work and we are going to raise all the money we need to raise to win."

Six senators who are up for re-election in 2012 had more than $2 million in the bank on Sept. 30: Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who had $6.77 million; Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had $3.74 million; Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who had $2.91 million; Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who had $2.38 million; Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who had $2.27 million; and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who had $2.32 million.

Brown is one of the Democrats' top targets next year, and several Republicans are already gunning for Nelson. Lugar and Hatch could be vulnerable to Republican nomination challenges.

In 2012 congressional candidates will be competing for donations during a presidential election cycle that is sure to attract huge sums of money.

A new factor for these senators seeking re-election -- which was evident during the midterms -- is last year's Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. As a result of the case, which allowed unlimited spending by businesses and labor unions on political races, special interests groups outspent Democratic and Republican candidates, boosting spending to record levels. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2010 midterms cost $4 billion, which surpassed the $2.8 billion spent during the 2006 midterms and was comparable to the spending in the presidential election year of 2004.

Sanders says he pleads "guilty to being probably the worst fundraiser in the U.S. Senate. It's something I don't like doing but I think we are beginning to ratchet up our efforts." Sanders said the Citizens United ruling needs to spark election reform.

"I think Citizens United is a horrendous decision, which allows billionaires to invest huge amounts of money in campaigns without disclosure. I think it's something that has to be changed," he said.

With year-end campaign finance reports due Jan. 31 and senators freshly back from break, fundraising numbers may look very different in a week.

Regardless, Carper said he would prefer to spend his time legislating instead of raising money.

"I think campaigns are too long," he said. "The idea that this is going to be a two year ordeal -- I like to put off getting into full campaign mode as long as we can so I can focus on my job."

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