A conservative Colorado political group allegedly backed by big-oil money and calling itself the Western Skies Coalition has targeted key state Senate races, apparently bent on portraying pro-oil Republicans vying for those seats as champions of alternative energy.
Cable television ads paid for by Littleton-based Western Skies tout the “alternative-energy” agendas of incumbent Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) and businesswoman Libby Szabo, who’s running for Senate District 19.
The most recent two-week ad buy, at a reported $143,000, depicts Mitchell as a big fan of solar, wind and biofuels, and claims he supports the “wise use” of natural gas and clean-coal energy. In fact, over the past 10 years, Mitchell has repeatedly opposed renewable energy standards in Colorado. Mitchell represents Senate District 23 in Broomfield, where he’s being challenged in November by law student and U.S. Army veteran Joe Whitcomb.
“This Western Skies ad makes Shawn Mitchell look great, and he has the most god-awful voting record [on alternative energy],” Whitcomb said Tuesday. “He was one of only seven or eight senators who voted against doubling Colorado’s alternative-energy portfolio.”
Mitchell did sponsor a bill that capped solar-panel inspection fees, but Whitcomb called that legislation mere green-washing.
“His whole ‘I’m a Sun-God’ bill was capping inspection fees for solar panels at $300, which is higher than they are in most counties already, so it was really saying, ‘Hey, I’m all for solar energy’ without really doing anything to help solar energy,” said Whitcomb.
Mitchell did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Szabo, meanwhile, is running in the open seat in north Jefferson County against Democrat Evie Hudak, who currently serves on the Colorado State Board of Education. Hudak said the ads echo the GOP’s broader approach of blaming Democrats for the current energy crisis while at the same portraying themselves as potential alt-energy saviors.
“I’ve seen the ads on TV for both Libby and Shawn and they’re virtually identical,” Hudak said. “I’m not familiar with that organization [Western Skies], although I guess that doesn’t surprise me that they’re paid for by oil and gas companies, because so is [Republican U.S. Senate candidate] ‘Big-Oil Bob’ [Schaffer].”
Schaffer, a former Colorado congressman and oil and gas executive, is running against Democratic Rep. Mark Udall. Schaffer has received significant contributions from the oil and gas industry, but in campaign ads and stump appearances has been talking up alternative energy. Hudak called Szabo a one-trick pony on the energy issue.
“My opponent does not have a record because she has not run for public office before,” Hudak said. “But I’ve seen a lot of her flyers and she seems to be using the energy issue only. I don’t see her using any other issue.”
Szabo did not return phone calls or e-mails requesting comment.
Western Skies is a Virginia corporation and as such does not have to reveal its contributors. However, a source identified several oil and gas companies with operations in Colorado that have pumped a total of as much as $1 million into the group’s coffers, including the Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. On Tuesday, Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen said he was not sure whether the company had made a contribution, and that the company does not disclose any specific amounts it contributes to charities or campaigns.
“The reason we give to entities is we see value in it, not to see the dollar amount out there,” Christiansen said.
Western Skies Coalition was registered in Colorado on April 2 as a Virginia corporation by Sean Tonner, president of the Highlands Ranch-based GOP consulting group, Phase Line Strategies, as the group’s registered agent in Colorado.
The three have worked on behalf of numerous high-profile Republicans — including former Gov. Bill Owens, the founder of the now-defunct Trailhead Group, one of the most notorious and wealthiest 527 GOP hit squads of 2006. During the time that Owens served as governor, between 1998 and 2006, Tonner was his chief of staff, Ciletti worked as a deputy director of the Office of Innovation and Technology and Behnke was a press assistant.
Tonner did not return a call requesting comment, and a message left on the answering machine of Western Skies’ Littleton office Tuesday was not immediately returned.
Bill Owens’ daughter, Monica Owens — who also is with Phase Line and is currently a delegate at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul — is also helping coordinate Western Skies activities. Under the “contribute” section of the Western Skies Web site, here’s how Owens describes the group:
Our organization is dedicated to promoting issues that make our nation great. We are dedicated to people who care about the values America was founded on and together, we can make real progress on the issues we stand for and believe in.
Within the next few weeks you will have the opportunity to support the ideas and policies important to you by making a donation to Western Skies Coalition. Please contact Monica Owens at 303.730.2702 if you have any further questions.
Western Skies’ Web site highlights several areas of interest, including a pro-growth economic agenda, a strong national defense, environmental preservation, health care reform and increased domestic energy production.
Ironically, under a photo of a panoramic, untouched mountain vista, the group indicates that, “It is vital for the United States to increase its domestic supplies of energy and decrease its dependence on foreign oil. Western Skies Coalition is committed to promoting and encouraging competition in the ethanol market, removing limits on new oil and gas exploration, restructuring the burdensome requirements placed on energy production in the United States and supporting the research of renewable energy…”
The site also promotes numerous well-known conservative causes and mouthpieces, including the Heritage Foundation, The Cato Institute, Hugh Hewitt, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.