In the mid-1980s, as League of Conservation Voters founder Marion Edey was stepping down from the organization she had created, she distilled the nonprofit group's mission as simply "electing the best, defeating the worst."
More than four decade later, the organization Edey started as a way to intertwine environmental issues into the electoral process pursues much the same mission. But now it's a political heavyweight with significant financial means, a network of dozens of state affiliates and a popular congressional scorecard that is used as a frequent reference point for advocates and impartial observers.
During the 2012 election cycle, LCV spent nearly $15 million looking to influence federal contests, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics -- putting it among the top tier of nonprofit organizations that spend on campaigns.
At the time Edey departed in 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported the group's total annual budget at $1.25 million, or about $2.7 million in today's dollars.
Despite a smaller budget in those early years, Edey told E&E Daily in an interview this month that the group claimed important wins.
Edey recalled some of the early victories, still relishing the ouster of veteran Colorado Rep. Wayne Aspinall in the 1972 Democratic primary, the second election cycle in which LCV worked to elect lawmakers.
"The league had good timing in that we started out right around Earth Day, and environmental issues were sort of the new kid on the block," said Edey, who established the group in 1970 with the aid of her mentor, former Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower.
In its early days, Edey said, Brower's newly established Friends of the Earth provided office space and "encouragement" to her fledging group, which she started not long after graduating from Oregon's Reed College in 1969 and spending a brief stint as an aide to then-Rep. Lester Wolff (D-N.Y.).
"We had a couple of very good successes," Edey added, who has often described herself in interviews as a lifelong conservationist and wrote her senior college thesis on "Coyotes on the ranch and wolves in Congress."
According to media accounts, LCV claimed victory in 43 of the 57 contests in which it endorsed a candidate in 1972, although it fell shorter in those races where it spent funds: Six of the 13 candidates who received part of that cycle's $65,000 in expenditures won their bids.
The group's campaign to oust Aspinall served in many ways as the prototype that LCV's political leaders continue to use to this day.
In Colorado's 4th District, redrawn for the 1972 election to stretch across the northern end of the Western Slope and south to Adams County in the Front Range, environmentalists targeted Aspinall, the longtime chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.
Aspinall, then in his 12th term, represented a large swath of the state's Western Slope and advocated for resource development in the state while he opposed preserving public land for recreation, dismissing the "environmental extremists" who wanted the land for "play."
Edey recalled Aspinall as a "nemesis" for his opposition to wilderness bills, making him an obvious target for the group; a New York Times editorial in 1972 characterized the Democrat as "a one-man road-block to sound environmental legislation."
Despite opting to wade into the race, backing law professor Alan Merson, the league tried to downplay its presence in the Centennial State, Edey said.
"We helped get support for a local group in Colorado and worked with them, because we didn't want to be too much of a heavy-handed outsider," Edey said. "But I would say that it was easier to do that in the early 1970s than it is today. The amount of money in politics was not as overwhelming, and the environment was a sexy new issue."
Despite toppling Aspinall in the Democratic primary, Merson couldn't win the general election, falling to Republican Jim Johnson, who would go on to serve four terms before retiring.
But the league claimed other victories, Edey said, noting the 1970 effort to oust then-House Public Works Chairman George Fallon (D-Md.) in favor of then-state Del. Paul Sarbanes (D), who went on to serve three terms in the House and five terms in the Senate.
More than 20 election cycles later, LCV continues to have an enviable success rate: In the 2012 election, it claimed 43 victories in the 60 federal races in which it issued endorsements.
But thanks to a combination of factors -- including changes in campaign finance law ushered in by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission -- LCV has seen its funding magnified from the days when it sold copies of its annual congressional scorecard for $5 apiece. (Click here to see LCV's original scorecard.)
"In terms of its sheer might, its finances, it's huge now," said Edey, who now works for the San Francisco-based Threshold Foundation, whose stated goal is "to create a more just, joyful and sustainable world." "It was a tiny creature when I was running it. I have to give credit to those who came after me. I was a pioneer and a visionary, but I didn't have the organizational skills to build it into the giant it is now."
'Money to play'
According to LCV's most recent tax forms, provided by the Center for Public Integrity, the nonprofit group saw its overall budget swell to $37 million in 2012, up from less than $12 million in the prior year.
The bulk of those funds, more than $32 million, comes from contributions, gifts and grants that LCV, as a nonprofit entity, is not required to disclose in publicly available versions of its 990 tax forms.
Although campaign finance regulations require outside spending groups like LCV to report contributions made "for the purpose of furthering an independent expenditure" -- television ads, for example, that call for the defeat of a specific candidate but are made without input from any campaign -- such donations are rare, and LCV reported none in its 2012 quarterly reports to the FEC.
While the Obama administration recently announced it would seek to stem the tide of "dark money" in elections -- funds spent by nonprofits like LCV -- by redefining the nonprofit status of politically active groups (E&ENews PM, Nov. 26), LCV President Gene Karpinski defended his organization's recent uptick in spending.
"It's not the purpose of LCV, but we do spend some money out of there," said Karpinski, who pointed to the LCV Action Fund and LCV Victory Fund. "It's just part of the way business is done, and we're happy to be doing it. We're glad we have the ability to spend that type of money."
According to its 2012 Internal Revenue Service filing, LCV spent more than $11 million on political activities and contributed another $3 million to other organizations.
FEC reports filed by the LCV Action Fund and the LCV Victory Fund show those groups spent $2 million and $3 million, respectively, in the 2012 cycle.
But such spending is necessary, Karpinski adds, pointing to expenditures made by the oil and gas industry, whether via political action committees that give directly to candidates or via groups that support development: "We're never going to outspend the other side."
During the 2012 cycle, Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit associated with Koch Industries executives David and Charles Koch, spent more than $36 million on election activity, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although LCV does not reveal its contributors, Karpinski credits small donors for some of the organization's growth.
"Our money comes from a vast variety of sources," Karpinski said. "But one of the things we've done in the last half-dozen years is build a much more significant small-donor member base."
During the last half-dozen years, Karpinski notes membership has increased in the national organization from about 100,000 to 1 million members.
But the Center for Public Integrity, which reviewed IRS records, reported in November that several large contributions also helped boost LCV's budget last year.
Among those donors, CPI found, the Green Tech Action Fund (GTAF) gave $2.6 million. The California-based nonprofit is led by Amy Fuerstenau, a former aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Although IRS returns for GTAF are not yet available for 2012, the nonprofit has previously assisted LCV with funds. According to its 2010 return, GATF issued three grants totaling nearly $4.5 million to the environmental group. LCV reported a budget of nearly $19.5 million in 2010, according to its tax records. The nonprofit did not donate funds to LCV in 2011, although it made smaller donations to a pair of state conservation voters groups.
GATF itself receives funds from the Energy Foundation, whose backers include billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer.
The Advocacy Fund, a California-based nonprofit formerly known as the Tides Advocacy Fund, likewise gave about $2 million to LCV last year.
An E&E Daily review of the Advocacy Fund's 2012 tax filing found smaller donations -- ranging from $15,000 to $278,000 -- to environmental groups including Bold Nebraska, 350.org, the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, the NRDC Action Fund and the Sierra Club.
Still, Karpinski said that despite the uptick in funding, LCV remains strategic about where and how it gets involved in elections.
"You have to have enough money to play, but you also have to spend it wisely," said Karpinski, who has overseen a tripling of the organization's electoral budget since he took LCV's helm in 2006 after spending 21 years as executive director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
During the 2012 cycle, LCV spent more than $1 million each on a half-dozen races, including the presidential contest and Senate races in Arizona, Massachusetts, Montana and Virginia, as well as a Texas House race. LCV-backed candidates won all but one of those elections, losing only in Arizona.
"The sharp contrasts are the places where we can be most effective," Karpinski said, referring to Senate contests in Virginia, Montana and New Mexico -- all states in which Democratic contenders won their bids last cycle.
In New Mexico in particular, LCV entered the race early -- along with a coalition of other environmental groups, like the Sierra Club -- to promote then-Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) over former Rep. Heather Wilson (R).
LCV named Wilson to its Dirty Dozen program -- a moniker LCV adopted in 1996 for its slate of targeted incumbent lawmakers, first used by Environmental Action in the 1970 cycle -- and inundated New Mexico airwaves with ads targeting the Republican. LCV spent about $380,000 in the contest, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
That Senate contest also came to represent a new level of coordination among politically active environmental groups, according to NRDC Action Fund Director Heather Taylor-Miesle.
"In 2012, you saw something that I don't think you've ever seen before," said Taylor-Miesle, who suggested that the race saw a professionalization of the green community's political operations. "We all kind of had a commitment to go out and make sure we were electing some champions. We were all actively looking for a few races where we could make a big difference."
While Taylor-Miesle noted that her organization and LCV have different approaches to elections -- the NRDC Action Fund focuses on helping "donors make really smart decisions," she said, rather than spending on independent expenditures like LCV -- the two organizations are not in competition with each other.
"What they do and what we do, it really complements each other. Our strength is fundamentally different," she said.
Karpinski declined to discuss specifics for the 2014 cycle -- aside from acknowledging a need to maintain a "firewall" in the Senate against the GOP-controlled House and an interest in gubernatorial contests -- but acknowledged that the organization would likely deploy a similar early-riser strategy.
"If we only choose to spend money in the last two weeks of an election, that's just silly," Karpinski said. "We want to make sure we frame the choice early."
He pointed to the recent Virginia gubernatorial contest, in which Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R).
"McAuliffe ran an ad back in August attacking Cuccinelli for being a climate change denier, and that was the first ad ever run exclusively on that subject matter," Karpinski said. "It's important to set winning frames early and make sure they're repeated throughout the election cycle."
In that contest, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters proved to be a key ally, donating $1.7 million in cash and in-kind contributions to McAuliffe's campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. LCV donated $1.9 million in cash and in-kind contributions to its Virginia affiliate and $23,000 in in-kind contributions directly to McAuliffe's campaign.
And while LCV expects to engage heavily in the 2014 election cycle, Karpinski said the organization will also maintain its focus on important policy pursuits.
"Generally speaking, the most important challenge we still face is the climate crisis," Karpinski said. "There are many more pieces that need to be put into place."
In particular, he pointed to rules U.S. EPA is drafting to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. He said LCV and its affiliates will focus on defending those rules "from inevitable attacks by polluters."
LCV also maintains a staff of in-house lobbyists -- at a cost of $120,000 in 2012 and $95,000 through the third quarter of 2013, according to publicly filed reports -- who encourage lawmakers to oppose construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, block offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, eliminate tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry, and back tax credits for renewable energy industry.
Environment wasn't always a partisan issue
Looking back to LCV's first election cycle in 1970, Edey said she believed the majority of voters would back clean air and conservation, noting: "It was a very nonpartisan issue at that time."
"The parties might compete with each other about who could get the environmental vote," Edey recalled. "Republicans had not gone as far to the right. The whole situation was less polarized."
At that time, The New York Times reported that the fledging group had endorsed eight Democrats and five Republicans for Congress.
The environmental group still endorses candidates from both parties -- although in 2012, only three Republicans were included in the 60 endorsements -- but Republicans often dismiss the organization as little more than a Democratic front group.
Edey herself said she is concerned that LCV is "too closely associated" with Democrats, attributing the skew in part to the "growing of relationships" formed over legislative goals over time.
"I think that it's important that they try even harder than they do to remain honest brokers," Edey said. "You want to be in the position where you're telling it like it is."
According to campaign finance data compiled by CRP, the environmental group spent more than $11 million opposing Republican candidates in the 2012 cycle, and about $500,000 opposing Democratic candidates. It spent another $2.5 million supporting Democrats but tallied no funds for Republicans.
Nonetheless, Karpinski dismissed concerns that LCV leans too heavily in favor of Democrats over Republicans, pointing to the fact that former House Science and Technology Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) sits on the group's board.
"We know that in order to make progress on our issues, we need to have bipartisan support," Karpinski said. "We totally understand the need to be bipartisan."
He pointed to New Jersey state Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman's (R) recent 2013 election bid, which drew significant support from the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters for a Cleaner Environment. Bateman faced Democrat Christian Mastondrea in a redrawn district in which registered Democrats outnumbered GOP voters.
In a November statement touting Bateman's win and calling him "the state's greenest" state senator, the New Jersey group reported that it had spent $40,000 on a five-part direct mail campaign on his behalf. New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission records also show the state group received a $25,000 contribution from the national LCV in October.
"We stand with our friends no matter which side of the aisle they're on," Karpinski said.
'Building a network'
While LCV has seen its financial influence grow in recent years, Karpinski noted that the organization has also made a concerted effort to extend its reach at the state level.
"We put a tremendous effort into building a network of state LCVs around the country," Karpinski said. While just nine state-affiliated groups existed in the late 1990s, more than 30 state organizations operate today.
The state-level organizations are typically involved in legislative races and gubernatorial battles, but Karpinski suggested the groups also serve as important proving grounds for national policy battles.
"The states are a laboratory to pass the most visionary policy reforms," Karpinski said. "The states have been the leader on passing clean energy and clean air laws."
Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith told E&E Daily that the relationship between his organization and LCV is "symbiotic."
"It really is a good and productive relationship. It's great to have a partner in D.C. to make the environment a political priority," Maysmith said, noting that individual staff members are often in contact with their LCV counterparts. "That's an analogue to what we do here in Colorado."
Maysmith pointed to the "Browns Canyon National Monument and Wilderness Act," which Sen. Mark Udall (D) introduced earlier this month, as an example of efforts on which the national and state groups would overlap (E&ENews PM, Dec. 3).
Being able to act in state legislative contests is also key to environmental legislation, Maysmith said, reflecting on the 2002 creation of Colorado Conservation Voters -- the group would merge with the Colorado Environmental Coalition in 2013 to form the current organization.
"Environmental advocates looked up and took stock of how much success we were having in the mid- and later 1990s, and the answer was: not nearly enough," Maysmith said. "Because we didn't have a robust political presence, we couldn't elect environmental champions and we couldn't unelect legislators who were bad on the environment."
Tomorrow: A look at the Natural Resources Defense Council.