Environmentalists who provided money, zeal and manpower to Democrats in 2008 are demoralized this campaign cycle, further fraying the coalition that sent Barack Obama to the White House and gave the party majorities in both houses of Congress.
Meanwhile, energy and business interests have ramped up spending by tens of millions of dollars, hoping in part to halt climate change legislation promised by Obama but stalled in the Senate.
Key donors, citing the fate of the global warming legislation, are not contributing as much money as they did in 2008. "One of them said, 'I thought our side won the last election, and it doesn't seem to make any difference,' " said Rodger Schlickeisen, president and chief executive of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.
At the same time, some Democratic leaders accuse environmentalists of failing to back members in tough districts who took a risk voting for controversial legislation to cap carbon emissions.
"They promised to support candidates who took a tough vote for climate change. Where are they? Where's the cavalry?" asked one Democratic Party official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.
At a private meeting of congressional Democrats last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) discussed the funding disparity between Republican-backed groups and those who had been expected to help Democrats. One participant said Pelosi told her fellow Democrats that she had asked environmental leaders, "Where are you guys?"
The environmentalists' lack of enthusiasm presents yet another challenge to Democrats, who are struggling to keep control of Congress. The environment has become a potent campaign issue, with a numerous Republican candidates downplaying humans as a cause of global warming, while leading advocates of climate change legislation, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), face strong challenges.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has begun running ads in multiple states criticizing candidates who voted for the cap-and-trade bill. The chamber announced plans to spend $75 million on campaigns this year, up from $50 million in 2008.
A number of environmentalists acknowledge that fundraising is challenging this year, but say it is because of the tough economic conditions and that they expect to be outspent by business groups like the chamber.
Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope contends that environmentalists will become fully engaged. "The mood in the country is pretty grim, but I don't think that means environmentalists are just going to stay home and pout," Pope said.
He points to California, where environmental groups are raising funds to fight Proposition 23, the ballot measure that would suspend the state's landmark global warming law.
Environmental activists fear that a Republican takeover of the House on Nov. 2 would cost allies such as Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) their committee chairmanships.
"It's hard to imagine legislative progress on clean energy and the environment," said Dan Weiss, who follows the politics of the environment for the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "A change in the congressional majority will bring an assault on the EPA and environmental regulation."
Some Democrats who supported the House-approved climate change bill are taking a pounding at home.
In Virginia, 14-term Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher, who voted for the climate change bill, has come under attack in a TV ad sponsored by Americans for Job Security for putting "Pelosi's job-killing agenda ahead of Virginia coal."
In his own ad, Boucher features a coal company executive calling the congressman "our best friend in Washington,'' and praising him for working to "get the best possible deal for coal'' in the climate change bill.
In Ohio, $171,000 has been spent on ads critical of climate change legislation in the region served by Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, another Democrat who voted for the bill. Many of the ads were sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by members of the family that owns Koch Industries, one of the nation's largest energy firms.
So far, environmentalists have not been on the air to counter those ads. But the campaign expects them soon, said Brad Bauman, Kilroy's communications director, adding, "The timing could work out well because voters are really just now starting to pay attention."
In California, where oil companies and executives have spent heavily in hopes of suspending the state's regulation of carbon emissions, activists and prominent clean-energy investors are responding but haven't caught up. Proposition 23 would suspend the 2006 law until the state's unemployment rate, now over 12%, dropped to 5.5% for a year, which has happened three times in the last four decades.