Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The 2020 presidential election speculation is beginning in earnest, and so is the intra-Democratic fighting. The latter has been sparked by reporter David Sirota (who has written for Splinter), who last week ignited an online shitshow by tweeting about Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign finance records.

What Sirota found was genuinely surprising: O’Rourke, a Democrat and purported contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, received the second highest amount of donations from the fossil fuel industry of any Senate candidate during the 2018 midterm cycle. The only candidate to receive more money from the industry was Ted Cruz, who beat O’Rourke in the Texas Senate race.

Sirota’s tweet enraged many centrists who are staking their hopes on O’Rourke to beat Trump in 2020. Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden even called Sirota’s “attacks” on O’Rourke (that is, his discussion of publicly available information) “dangerous.”

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In response to the controversy, progressive publication Sludge looked deeper into O’Rourke’s donations, and what it found doesn’t look great for the would-be candidate.

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From Sludge:

Based on detailed campaign finance data provided to me by the Center for Responsive Politics, the organization that operates the OpenSecrets website, I’ve found that of the $430,000 that O’Rourke’s Senate campaign received from individuals who work in the oil and gas industry, 75 percent has come in the form of “large” donations over $200. The donors include more than two dozen oil and gas executives. More than 30 donations were the maximum allowed amount of $2,700. But the Texas representative also took in tons of small donations of $200 and under.

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This information is evidence that O’Rourke broke a campaign promise. During his campaign, he signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which required that candidates not take any donations exceeding $200 from fossil fuel PACs or individuals in the industry. The pledge was endorsed by 16 environmental groups.

Sirota told Sludge that he wasn’t trying to dig up dirt on O’Rourke when he found this data.

“I do a lot of campaign finance reporting and was working on a project about the influence of the oil and gas industry, which is a storyline I’ve covered for a while,” Sirota told me. “While I was reviewing some of the data, I saw the congressional rankings at the Center for Responsive Politics and hadn’t realized O’Rourke had gotten a decent amount of support from donors in the oil and gas industry. In the era of climate change and when we know aggregate individual donations from major industries can be influential, I thought that was mildly noteworthy, so I tweeted it. I didn’t write some giant story on it, and I didn’t even make a value judgment about the donations in the tweet—I just tweeted a link to the CRP page. That’s all.”

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Some critics of Sirota argued that his tweet’s use of the phrase “oil and gas campaign cash” was misleading, because O’Rourke’s oil money came from individuals rather than PACs. The Center for Responsive Politics’ Research Director Sarah Bryner told Sludge that she disagrees: “I don’t think [it’s misleading], no. We say the same thing all the time!”

Sludge points out that the $430,000 O’Rourke received makes up a small fraction of his gargantuan fundraising total of $69.2 million, and that they pale in comparison to the $1.2 million his opponent, Ted Cruz, raised from the industry.

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The narrative around this story has since spun wildly out of control, with Tanden and others accusing Sirota, with no evidence, of being part of a conspiracy to smear O’Rourke led by Senator Bernie Sanders.

There will undoubtedly plenty of this kind of insane online bullshit in the coming months. But what actually matters about this story is that O’Rourke broke a campaign promise that he made to environmentalist organizations, at a time when climate change is more threatening and immediate than ever. Even if his donations from oil executives are understandable for a politician running in Texas, breaking promises to the left isn’t a great way to start out a theoretical bid for president, especially while O’Rourke’s new colleagues are leading the way on dramatic climate action.

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Whatever Tanden and her cronies think, votes have to be earned, not demanded. Criticism like this should be seen not as a threat, but as an opportunity for O’Rourke to show he’s willing to listen.

Update, 11:55 pm: There has been some confusion about who in the oil industry donated to O’Rourke. Sludge found that there were 24 oil executives who made donations to O’Rourke’s campaign, totaling $35,125. According to this data, Beto broke his pledge at least 25 times.  

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“We only just found out about the information based off of your email and retracing that thread,” David Turnbull, of Oil Change USA, one of the organizations that supported the pledge, told Sludge. “We’re going to be reaching out to Beto’s campaign to get a better understanding of what the situation is, and if his contributions are indeed counter to the spirit of the pledge, we’ll take him off the website and certainly encourage him to come back into compliance with the pledge.”