McCain Drills for Cash at the Petroleum Club

Sen. John McCain will visit Denver on Thursday to do what many politicians have done before him — ask for money. But the fundraising trip to the posh Petroleum Club in Denver tomorrow raises a central question of the 2008 campaign: would a McCain presidency simply reprise the oil-and-gas-friendly Bush Administration for another four years?The Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee is a study in contrasts — often exasperatingly so for political allies and opponents alike.

An examination of McCain’s campaign donors, voting record and public statements suggest his long-hewed persona as a political maverick coexists with his identity as consummate Washington insider with strong ties to corporate interests — a politician who is as much a product of a money-bloated political system as his colleagues.

As noted in the sidebar at right, McCain’s legislative priorities on energy issues appear to change depending on his political ambitions. The senator’s voting record on oil and gas drilling in protected public lands, corporate tax breaks, and CAFE standards are often inconsistent with his public comments on renewable energy, foreign oil independence and climate change. The statements are also at odds with an industry that has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign coffers. Compounding the squeamishness on McCain’s views is an odd omission from his presidential Web site — there’s no energy policy except for a speech from April 23, 2007 buried in the news and media section.

Striking black gold
McCain has long enjoyed the support of the energy interests who have prospered in the Bush years.

Over nearly three decades, McCain has accepted $551,962 from oil and gas interests to pump up his Senate re-election funds, two Presidential campaigns and the Straight Talk America leadership PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit group that tracks political contributions.

Since announcing his most recent bid for the White House last year, McCain has collected $232,000 from employees and political action committees of U.S. energy conglomerates in the last year — or 42 percent of all the oil and gas money he’s ever accepted over a 26-year political career. And more than double the haul from his entire 2000 presidential campaign.

“While Senator McCain deserves credit for the leadership he has shown on the issue of global warming, he has a lifetime record of voting against the environment in three out of every four key votes. Last year, he missed every key environmental vote in the Senate,” said Gene Karpinski, President of the League of Conservation Voters. Thus earning McCain an F rating on environmental issues from the organization.

Political maverick or fossil fuel maven?
The ties to the extractive energy sector don’t end at McCain’s own doorstep.

More than a dozen of the senator’s top campaign advisors and fundraisers have deep ties to the oil and gas industry. The Center for Responsive Politics finds that, as a group, McCain’s team received more than $6.5 million in lobbying contracts with some of the world’s largest oil conglomerates, such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Texaco, Occidental International, and the trade group, American Petroleum Institute, among others.

As the Washington Independent’s Mike Lillis noted in a Feb. 21 story, McCain’s former role as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee made him a target of lobbyist largesse.

But, watchdog groups say, sticking to vows of political-favor celibacy is no easy task in a system bloated with special-interest dollars, particularly for a high-profile committee chairman. In this sense, McCain is not so much a corruptible figure as he is a product of his environment.

“Candidates at this point basically owe their jobs to moneyed interests,” said Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It takes a heroic effort to resist the temptations that are put into place.”

One likely reason for McCain’s fundraising trip to Denver is to woo the state’s wealthiest oil men on their home turf — most of whom supported Mitt Romney. With the ex-Massachusetts governor now out of the race and the primary field cleared, McCain has some ring-kissing to do at the Petroleum Club.

McCain needs the support of people like newly installed CU president and Republican 527 committee Trailhead’s co-founder Bruce Benson and Alex Cranberg of Aspect Energy, both of whom also served as fundraising bundlers for Romney.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, McCain has attracted about $20,000 from Colorado-based energy sector CEOs and employees, less than half of Romney’s haul before he dropped out seven weeks ago. CBS 4 reported this morning that McCain’s Colorado fundraising drought may be relieved in short order — the event invitation purportedly requires attendees to bundle a minimum of $25,000 for the campaign.

The Colorado visit highlights the way McCain’s push for campaign finance and ethics reforms has put him in a political bind. The need for cash is  all-consuming on the campaign trail but his
persona of being above the money-grubbing fray doesn’t pay the bills. Which may explain why the
conservative Washington Times called McCain’s fundraising “abysmal” in a Tuesday editorial.

Yet the price of tickets to attend the Thursday evening Petroleum Club event range from $1,000 to $2,300 per person, the larger of which is just half the maximum allowable contribution. News reports of McCain’s fundraising swing through California this week also report the same low-ball approach.

The Washington Times argued that if the GOP wants to retain control of the White House, “President Bush, the most prolific money magnet in the history of the Republican Party, needs to add the duties of fund-raiser-in-chief to his commander-in chief-responsibilities between now and Election Day.”

Relying on Bush could play into the hands of Democratic political opponents who have taken to calling the Arizona senator “McSame,” to foster the perception that McCain is a copy of the unpopular president.

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Wendy Norris

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