Defenders of Wildlife spent $1.6M to oust Musgrave
Fort Collins Coloradoan/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
FORT COLLINS, Colo. ” The effort to unseat Marilyn Musgrave began unusually early this year, when a national environmental group began airing TV ads attacking her more than four months before Election Day.
As the ads began running, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund said it was committed to spending at least $500,000 to oust the three-term incumbent.
By the time polls closed Tuesday, the group Musgrave denounced as “environmental extremists” had spent three times that much and she had suffered the worst loss of any Republican House incumbent in the nation.
“I’d like to think and hope we played a significant role. There were other independent voices and groups there besides ours, but I think ours was an early one and perhaps the most substantial of them all,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife and its political arms.
Democratic challenger Betsy Markey defeated Musgrave 56 to 44 percent, making it difficult to point to any group or event as decisive in the race, CSU political scientist John Straayer said.
“Everyone will claim credit for everything. As with most electoral outcomes, it ain’t so simple,” Straayer said. “A multitude of factors, none determinative all alone, combine to produce the outcomes.”
Federal Election Commission records show Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund’s two political arms ” a 527 group and a 501(c)4 group ” spent about $1.6 million targeting Musgrave.
That was the second-largest independent expenditure by a nonparty group in any House race in the country this year, trailing only the $1.7 million spent by the National Association of Realtors Political Action Committee in a successful effort to re-elect embattled Pennsylvania Democrat Paul Kanjorski.
Musgrave has not commented on the election outcome and didn’t give a concession speech or call Markey on Tuesday night. Her campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Musgrave frequently attacked Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and attempted to tie them to Markey.
“Defenders of Wildlife hates our way of life,” Musgrave said at a debate in her hometown of Fort Morgan last month.
Defenders endorsed Markey early in the race, but by law they could not coordinate expenditures or strategy with her campaign. Markey repeatedly said she had been advised by campaign lawyers not to comment on the group’s activities because doing so might violate the legal prohibitions against coordination.
Running ads before Labor Day generally is viewed as ineffective because voters aren’t tuned in to the election.
Defenders advertised heavily from late June through mid-August, and Schlickeisen said the group has found such an approach to be useful in helping to define an opponent in the public’s eye.
Colorado State University political science chairman Bob Duffy said the early approach could have a marginal impact on the electorate.
“My best guess is that it probably served to remind those who did not like Musgrave that an election was coming up, and that it may have served as an early notice to new voters that Musgrave was flawed,” he said.
The role of Defenders in the Markey-Musgrave race and in New Mexico House and Senate races drew criticism from Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a longtime critic of environmental groups.
“Defenders of Wildlife appears to be far more interested in partisan politics than environmental causes,” said a report prepared by Inhofe’s staff Oct. 15.
Schlickeisen said political activity is a key to building a supportive public policy environment. He said his group and others in the environmental movement have to offset large campaign contributions from oil interests and others.
His group made its first political splash in 2006, when it spent more than $1 million in a concerted ” and ultimately successful ” effort to oust Richard Pombo of California, the Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee.
The group also thought about targeting Musgrave in 2006 but decided to devote its resources to Pombo, Schlickeisen said.
This year, Musgrave was initially the group’s No. 2 target after the New Mexico Senate race, where Defenders was supporting Rep. Tom Udall, a member of a prominent environmental family.
But with polls showing Udall safely ahead, Defenders wound up spending less than $200,000 on the New Mexico Senate race and turned its focus to Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.
Why Musgrave? Like many Republicans she got low ratings from environmental groups, but unlike Pombo, she was not a senior member of a committee that dealt with environmental issues.
“She stood out because we thought she was so out of step,” Schlickeisen said. “Being wildlife conservationists, the intermountain West is a hugely important area to us and here she was.”
After the long campaign, Schlickeisen expressed a grudging respect for Musgrave.
“Musgrave was frankly a tougher competitor and fought back more than Pombo did,” he said. “I hate her policies and what she stands for, but I’ll say this for her, she’s a fighter.”
With victories in 2006 and 2008, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund will soon start determining who to target in 2010.
“You’re right in asking because part of strategic approach is we don’t sit around and decide at the last, we start looking early. And we will be looking to see what happens now and who’s left there that we should be after.”
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