One of three Democratic senators who supports blocking U.S. EPA's ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants draws one of the highest amounts of campaign contributions from electric utilities.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) received $162,202 from utilities since 2005, placing her fifth overall for power plant money among senators seeking re-election this year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Contributions from power companies came during a period where Congress has considered a number of sweeping climate and energy bills. Lincoln chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and also sits on the Energy & Natural Resources and Finance committees, giving her votes on policies affecting rural electricity service, energy businesses and taxes.
Lincoln has drawn attention recently as a co-sponsor of a measure by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would effectively veto EPA's finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. Released last December, EPA's determination opens the door for rules aimed at slashing emissions from a broad range of sources, including oil refineries and utilities.
"She's considered kind of a swing vote among Democrats in the climate legislation," said Adele Morris, policy director for climate and energy economics at the Brookings Institution. "They need to get that sort of core set of Democratic legislators on board with the legislation. She's probably one of those Democrats in play."
Lincoln's office said that there is no connection between the contributions and her policy positions.
"Senator Lincoln is accountable to Arkansas voters alone," Lincoln spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum said in an e-mail.
"Senator Lincoln supports the Murkowski resolution because heavy-handed EPA regulation would harm Arkansas's small business economy," Laning Niebaum added, noting that the Murkowski measure, a House companion bill, and a letter sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson expressing concerns all have been bipartisan. In addition to Lincoln, Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have joined the 38 Republicans supporting the Murkowski disapproval resolution.
"These bipartisan efforts show that people in Washington have realized the potentially devastating impacts that would result from the EPA expanding the Clean Air Act beyond Congress' original intent," Laning Niebaum said.
Environmentalists criticized what they see as Lincoln's support of utilities.
"She does what they want," said Tony Massaro, senior vice president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. "She fights for electric utilities not the people of Arkansas."
Big utilities and rural electric cooperatives support Lincoln financially. The Action Committee for Rural Electrification or ACRE, the political action committee for the National Rural Electric Cooperative, gave Lincoln $10,000 over the past five years. Rural electric cooperatives are owned by members.
"We support our friends," said Patrick Lavigne, director of media and public relations for National Rural Electric Cooperative.
Lincoln's support of the Murkowski measure is important to rural electric cooperatives, which lobbied her to back Murkowski's resolution, said Carmie Henry, vice president of governmental affairs for Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc.
Signaling EPA to slow down in regulating power plants "is critical in our industry, particularly critical to utilities that do use some fossil fuels for electricity generation," Henry said.
Agriculture interests in Arkansas also lobbied Lincoln to support Murkowski's resolution, Henry said.
Lincoln has been supportive in other ways, Henry said, helping obtain funding for the Rural Utilities Service under the Agriculture Department. On climate legislation, he said, Lincoln has responded favorably to the group's positions.
"She has said the right things to us about being concerned about cap and trade," Henry said. While not offering her own bill, he said, Lincoln has said "that she could not support what's been offered so far."
Lincoln and other senators the group contributes to "do what they can when they see that it fits with their state," Henry said. "We get listened to. That's all you can ask."
National Rural Electric Cooperative has made contributions to Lincoln for both of her Senate races, Henry said.
Southwestern Energy over the past five years has given Lincoln's campaign $38,550, according to Center for Responsive Politics. Entergy Corp. contributed $19,600. Neither company responded to several requests for comment.
Coal-fired plants in Arkansas supply about half of the state's power demand, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Over the past five years there have been a number of proposed laws and regulations that would adversely affect coal-fired power plants, said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute.
"The coal industry has been on the receiving end of tighter and tighter mandates," Green said. "They've had good reason to make sure their state representatives know what the impact of regulations are going to be."
Utilities, like many big businesses, give to lawmakers from both major political parties, Green said.
"They know sooner or later both sides are going to be in power," Green said.
Southwestern Energy in the past five years has given money to Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and David Vitter (R-La.), but of the Senate candidates has given the most to Lincoln, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.
It is questionable how much of an effect contributions have on legislators' votes, Green said. The contributions might get a company a meeting with a senator to make its case for or against a measure, he said, but most lawmakers have a set of principles that guide their votes.
"I don't think you can assume money tells the tale," Green said.
Of the senators landing in the top five for electric utility campaign contributions, Lincoln is the only Democrat who also backs Murkowski's resolution. Murkowski ranks second on that same list, behind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose contributions include his 2008 presidential race.
Feeling the heat
Lincoln's support of Murkowski's measure comes as she finds herself squeezed on both sides politically. She received a primary challenger yesterday, Arkansas' Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. He said on his Web site he is running against Lincoln because "Washington is no longer on the side of Arkansas families. And it's up to us to fix it."
Lincoln is likely to beat Halter but at the same time is second only to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in terms of Democrats who are vulnerable in November's election, said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report. January polls give at least two of the potential Republican challengers 4 to 6 percentage point leads over Lincoln, Duffy said.
The primary challenge from Halter means Lincoln is likely to move left politically, Duffy said.
"She's now not talking to a general election pool. She's talking to a Democratic voting pool," Duffy said.
Environmental groups said they will continue to attack Lincoln for her support of Murkowski's measure. Friends of the Earth and Credo Action plan to erect a billboard in Little Rock featuring Lincoln's face and the words "Corporate Polluters I Support You -- Blanche Lincoln." The Sierra Club ran radio spots in the Little Rock and Fort Smith media markets that criticized Lincoln.
"It's not surprising that when you follow the money you see how much money she's taken from corporate polluters," said Nick Berning, Friends of the Earth director of public advocacy. "The work she's doing in the Senate benefits them over her constituents."
Sierra Club declined to comment on Lincoln's campaign contributions. Credo Action did not return messages seeking comment.