The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Group with GOP ties targets liberals on Democratic spending bill

The organization, United for Clean Power, has run ads urging liberal members of Congress to tank the Democrats’ reconciliation bill if it omits more expansive climate measures

Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), left, and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) are among the lawmakers being targeted by United for Clean Power. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

An organization with ties to Republicans has been targeting liberal lawmakers with advertisements urging them to defeat the Inflation Reduction Act, on the grounds that it does not do enough to stop climate change.

The Democrats’ spending bill, which passed the Senate over the weekend and is expected to be voted on by the House this week, would provide hundreds of billions of dollars in clean-energy tax credits, rebates for electric vehicles, rewards to cut methane emissions and other incentives that together are estimated by experts to cut U.S. planet-warming emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Although environmental advocacy groups disagree with the bill’s measures supporting fossil fuel production, the most prominent ones have urged its passage, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and National Wildlife Federation.

How the Inflation Reduction Act might impact you — and change the U.S.

The GOP-linked group United for Clean Power has purchased ads targeting some of the most liberal members of the House, including Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).

In a statement, Pressley said she plans to vote for the reconciliation bill.

“While our work is unfinished – on paid leave, housing, disability justice, immigration, the care economy, environmental justice and more – this bill is historic and desperately needed,” Pressley said. “This is one more example of progressives pressing in support of the President’s agenda and the Biden White House delivering, but it’s not surprising that dark GOP money is trying to misrepresent the role we have played in this fight to our constituents.”

The other representatives’ offices declined or did not respond to requests for comment, but they are expected to vote for it.

The ads urge voters to tell liberal members of Congress to “demand environmental justice or kill the reconciliation bill,” adding that “without comprehensive climate change provisions the reconciliation package is a failure.” Democrats have a narrow margin in the House and need virtually every vote in their caucus to send the measure to President Biden’s desk.

United for Clean Power did not respond to an interview request.

There is little information available publicly about the group or its donors, but tax and fundraising disclosures point to ties to a GOP network of political operatives and donors. In 2015, it received $41,000 from Freedom Frontier, a group that donated $250,000 that year to a political action committee supporting Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). In 2018, United for Clean Power raised nearly $208,000 and paid nearly $136,000 to Majority Strategies, a Republican political advertising firm.

The newsletters FWIW and Popular Information reported on the group, its ads on the reconciliation bill and its ties to Republicans. The group’s founder, Erin Cummings, said in an interview Thursday morning that the group was intended to be a bipartisan effort and that she has little memory of what ultimately happened to it after she decided to hand over control in 2017.

“I thought the organization was basically shut down,” Cummings said. “I’m not necessarily happy with the messaging.”

The 2015 funding from Freedom Frontier, Cummings said, went toward purchasing ads supporting Graham, who at the time was one of the few Republicans who acknowledged the reality of climate change.

David Kieve, president of EDF Action, the advocacy arm of Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview that he and his colleagues first noticed United for Clean Power’s advertisements on a Politico newsletter. A Politico spokesman said the group sponsored its New York Playbook newsletter during the week of Aug. 1.

“We kind of kicked it around internally and asked each other, ‘Has anyone ever heard of these guys?’ And the answer was no, and so we started doing a little more poking around, and we certainly didn’t like what we saw,” Kieve said. “This is exactly the type of activity that makes people really cynical about politics and cynical about the way that things work in this country.”

While liberal lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have criticized the Inflation Reduction Act for not doing more to shore up the American social safety net, they are still expected to support its passage. Omar was quoted on Monday as saying she was disappointed in the bill’s fossil fuel provisions and the removal of measures of some corporate tax and health-care measures but that the bill still represented a “massive step forward.”

“If the question is, ‘Do we take this or nothing?’ the answer to all of us just about seems pretty clear,” Kieve said. EDF Action has purchased $1 million in national television ad buys urging the bill’s passage.

The ads on the reconciliation bill are not the first time United for Clean Power has used this strategy to stymie Democrats. In 2020, United for Clean Power purchased ads in an Oregon state Senate race in support of a third-party candidate, Shauleen Higgins, according to Google data, focusing on the environment and a local natural gas project that had been hugely controversial. The area had long been represented by Democrats.

Higgins won 4 percent of the vote, and the Democratic candidate in the race, Melissa Cribbins, lost to the Republican by less than three percentage points. Higgins said in an interview that the group had not coordinated with her campaign and that she was unaware of the ads.

“Unfortunately in a tight race like that where the [party] registration percentage is almost exactly equal, it doesn’t take a lot to tip things over,” Cribbins said in an interview. “Honestly, I just wondered if it wasn’t somebody trying out a strategy.”