The Republican Attorneys General Association had raised $15.7 million by early May, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, well ahead of the $5.7 million collected by its Democratic counterpart. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Conservative organizations are pouring money into the coffers of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which is far outpacing its Democratic rival in fundraising to elect candidates who will stand up to what they see as an activist Democratic agenda.

The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) had raised $15.7 million by early May, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog, well ahead of the $5.7 million collected by the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Founded in 1999, RAGA has recently ramped up its fundraising efforts; in 2014, it brought in $16 million, up from $470,000 in 2002, and it claims credit for helping to increase the number of Republican attorneys general elected by half a dozen or more. Recently GOP attorneys general have cast themselves as the last bulwark against federal government encroachment and have thrown themselves against President Obama’s policies on immigration, health-care reform, climate change and Labor Department overtime rules.

RAGA has tapped into the fossil-fuel industry, health insurers and ideological donors from the right wing of the political spectrum for large infusions of cash.

The top contributions, as of early May, included $1,445,000 from the Judicial Crisis Network, devoted to blocking the appointment of liberal judges; $1,180,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform; $500,000 from Republican casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson; and $451,100 from Blue Cross Blue Shield, a large health insurance company that has been struggling to provide plans under the Affordable Care Act.

The Judicial Crisis Network is backed by multimillion-dollar contributions from the Wellspring Committee; both are 501(c)(4) organizations, which do not have to divulge their donors.

“The amount of money is staggering,” said James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general and an adjunct professor at Harvard Law School who blames the Citizens United ruling, which lifted limits on corporate political contributions. “But that’s because it’s legal, and it’s legal because the Supreme Court said it was legal.”

Democrats have belatedly tried to duplicate the Republican model. Founded in 2002, the Democratic Attorneys General Association has recently added offices in San Francisco and Washington, and in May hired its first full-time executive director, veteran political strategist Sean Rankin. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, its top donor this year is Pfizer, with $125,000; eight others gave $100,000 each, including CVS Pharmacy, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Home Depot and Walmart, which also gave to RAGA. In 2014, the Democratic group’s largest contribution, $380,000, came from the Teamsters union.

Rankin said his goals are to close the fundraising gap by relying more on small donors and to help Democrats “get in office, stay in office and do a better job while in office.”

On the Republican side, energy companies have donated much of the money that has flowed into the group’s coffers. RAGA members have filed suit to block the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, intended to slash carbon dioxide emissions from oil, natural gas and, above all, coal. The GOP attorneys general, who have already secured an unusual stay from the Supreme Court, are set to argue Tuesday before the full bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

During the 2016 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, RAGA has received $400,000 from Ariel, a maker of natural-gas compressors; $353,250 from Koch Industries, the energy firm owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch; and $250,000 from Murray Energy, a coal-mining company whose chief executive has sharply attacked Obama. The American Petroleum Institute gave $50,000 in each of the past two years.

Democrat Terry Goddard, a former Arizona attorney general, former Phoenix mayor and now senior counsel at the law firm Dentons, said he deplores the increase in campaign money to attorneys general, even though he believes that the legal officers are operating ethically. “Probably the worst thing is that it raises the idea in the minds of people that this is a pay-to-play operation,” he said.

The Republican state attorneys general have attacked Democratic AGs over an investigation into whether ExxonMobil knew about the threat of climate change as early as the 1970s and whether the oil giant violated securities law by misleading the public and investors about the potential consequences.

The New York and Massachusetts attorneys general have issued broad subpoenas in the matter, but Exxon, which says it has already provided New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman about 1 million documents, has complained that Schneiderman is violating the company’s freedom of speech.

Republicans have accused Schneiderman of colluding with environmental groups and liberal nonprofits to come up with a plan to use the same strategy against the oil industry that was used against the tobacco industry.

The flap was at the top of the agenda when RAGA held its summer meeting at the Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs on July 11. The first panel, attended by hundreds of corporate executives, was titled “Climate Change Debate — How Speech Is Being Stifled.”

The meeting did not include any scientific experts on climate change. Instead the panel included a longtime denier of climate change, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Chet M. Thompson, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, whose plants are major emitters of greenhouse gases. The AFPM gave RAGA $50,900 last year and has given $135,000 so far in 2016.

“We’ve got reality on our side,” Ebell said. He called the investigation of Exxon an “inquisition.” Ebell’s group received about $2 million from Exxon in the 2000s before the company switched direction and stopped funding the small group.

Challenging the overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is real, Ebell said that “the first thing they try to do is try to change reality. They try to change the facts.” He added, “The next thing they try to do is exaggerate the impacts.”

“This is not about climate change, and it’s not about fraud,” Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange interjected, according to a recording of the event provided by the Center for Media and Democracy. “It’s about if elected officials should be able to turn the prosecutorial power of their states against their political opponents in contradiction of our First Amendment and our basic speech rights in this country.”

Strange, who becomes RAGA chairman in November, told the group that he had “never received a penny from Exxon in any campaign I’ve run.” The oil giant, however, gave $50,000 to RAGA in 2015 and another $50,000 this year, according to filings by RAGA to the Treasury.

Environmental groups say the RAGA meeting in July was no different from their own efforts; the Republican attorneys general plotted strategy with like-minded groups. The environmentalists say that they are exercising the free speech RAGA claims to be protecting and that they also have the right to petition government officials and to consult experts. Their meetings were not secret, they add.

“This is much more like collusion,” said Nick Surgey, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy. “These corporations have leverage because they pay into RAGA. And most of their money goes to elections.”

Much of RAGA’s strategy will revolve around television ads in states where the group hopes to make a difference.

The group has booked $3.8 million in broadcast and cable TV advertising time for the final five weeks of the state attorney general campaign in North Carolina, where the Republican nominee, state Sen. Buck Newton, is in a tough race against Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein.

The association has already spent, through its Mountaineers Are Always Free PAC, nearly $2 million on four rounds of ads in West Virginia, where it is highlighting the fight against the Clean Power Plan, which would hurt the state’s coal industry. And it has sent $2 million to Josh Hawley’s campaign for attorney general in Missouri, which allows direct contributions. RAGA plans further spending in those states as well as in Pennsylvania and Indiana.