Rep. Frank McNulty is one of a trio of GOP state lawmakers thought to be behind the Western Skies Coalition — a Virginia corporation raising oil and gas money to target key state senate races.
In an interview with Colorado Independent, McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) declined to discuss the group’s funding sources Tuesday, but he did acknowledge signing its “Energy Leadership Action Plan” pledge.“I signed the Western Skies pledge on a balanced energy portfolio,” McNulty said. “I think that’s critically important. We need to be looking at traditional sources like coal, and hopefully clean-coal technologies, and natural gas. We also need to look at increasing the use of hydro power. And I think we need to look at nuclear.”
Several sources, both on and off the record, have told Colorado Independent that McNulty, along with Sen. Josh Penry (R-Grand Junction) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma), are behind the Western Skies Coalition (WSC), which bills itself as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization but has not registered as such with the Internal Revenue Service.
WSC has a Littleton office, but messages left there have not been returned, and both Penry and Gardner did not return numerous phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
So-called C4 organizations by law do not have to disclose donors but must engage in promoting social issues, with no more than 49 percent for their contributions spent on political advocacy. Western Skies in recent weeks ran thousands of dollars worth of television ads in support of Republican state senate candidates Shawn Mitchell and Libby Szabo.
The ads have portrayed both Mitchell, an incumbent from Broomfield and Szabo, a businesswoman running for Senate District 19 on the Front Range, as green-energy advocates. In fact, Mitchell has repeatedly voted against increasing the state’s renewable-energy portfolio and Szabo is running on a pro-traditional-energy platform. Neither Mitchell nor Szabo returned messages requesting comment
According to an Aug. 29 story in the Rocky Mountain News, Mitchell also signed the Western Skies pledge, but did so because of its traditional-energy opportunities rather than its nod to pursuing renewable sources, telling the paper, “What I’m not is a clean-energy statist that’s going to force consumers to transition before it makes sense.”
McNulty said he is interested in renewables as part of a menu of energy-production options: “On the hydro front we need to look at pump-back, because it provides the ability to provide a battery for wind and solar, which we also need to look at. Wind and solar make sense, but it doesn’t work all the time and it doesn’t work without having some way to flip the switch and generate electricity when the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining. I don’t think it’s to the detriment of oil and gas.”
McNulty added it’s simply a matter of maintaining the Colorado lifestyle.
“It’s clear that as a state and nation we’re going to have to look at the full broad spectrum of energy resources if we’re going to be able to continue our economic growth and be able to continue something resembling the standard of living to which we as Coloradans have become accustomed,” he said.
Several oil and gas companies with extensive interests in Colorado flatly refused to disclose whether they have contributed to Western Skies, and McNulty wouldn’t go there either. The group lists on its executive committee former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who used to work as an oil and gas lobbyist and was behind the infamous Trailhead Group 527 that flooded state airwaves with attack ads in 2006.
Another reportedly targeted race — Senate District 8 in northwest Colorado, which includes parts of gas-rich Garfield County — has yet to see substantial injections of outside money.
“I’ve seen a couple of mailers for me that have come from somebody called Coloradans for Integrity, and I don’t know who that is. I haven’t seen anything against me,” said Rep. Al White (R-Hayden), who’s running to replace term-limited Sen. Jack Taylor in SD 8. “It’s certainly not to the extent that some of those targeted Front Range races are being identified for support, and I don’t know frankly how much more I will get, if anything, by way of outside entities.”
Coloradans for Integrity is a Colorado LLC registered in January to Jennie Willis, a receptionist at Denver-based Axiom Strategies, which on its Web site purports to be a bi-partisan political consulting and lobbying firm. It lists among its clients the Colorado Independent Energy Association, which promotes natural gas production but also renewable energy.
White is running against former Steamboat Springs City Councilman Ken Brenner, a Democrat who’s accused his opponent of being in the pocket of the oil-and-gas industry, which White flatly denies, pointing to two past endorsements from the environmentally-minded Colorado Conservation Voters.
As for a concerted Republican strategy to retake the senate using groups such as Western Skies, White said it’s no secret the state GOP wants to regain the legislative majority standing it enjoyed for decades before being ousted in 2004.
“Yeah, the party’s always interested in having the majority, and although my seat would just be a hold as opposed to a pickup, until we stop losing seats we’re never going to get the majority back,” White said. Democrats hold 20 of the 35 senate seats and Republicans would need to maintain those seats and pick off three from the Dems in the 18 races being contested in November in order to regain a majority.
McNulty declined to discuss the overall Republican strategy for regaining control of the senate, but acknowledged 501(c)4 groups have supplanted 527s (also named for their IRS code) as a useful political tool since the crackdown this year on 527 disclosure.
“It is interesting how 501(c)4’s have become the new 527s, but it’s a campaign finance change,” McNulty said. “Folks are going to figure out how to support the issues that are important to them, so whether that’s through a state party, or a 527, or a contribution to an individual candidate, or whatever vehicle is out there, I suppose smart folks will figure out how to do it.”