While the national press has been focused on counting Democrats and Republicans in the next Congress, they are missing what was a preview of the kind of political fighting we’re going to see in the next two years.

The battle was fought over California Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that sought to overturn the California Global Warming Act of 2006. Prop 23 went down to defeat in a landslide, giving folks in SF yet another reason to cheer this week. But the fight goes on — over not just climate change policy but lots of other issues as well — and the means by which the Prop 23 fight took place shows a new and shadowy tactic we’re sure to see more of.

Looking at the CA Secretary of State’s website to track donors in CA elections, the Yes on 23 donor page makes it obvious that energy companies made Prop 23 a huge priority, putting in over $9.6 million directly from their corporate accounts. Valero put in over $5 million alone, Tesoro over $2 million, and Flint Hills Resources tossed in an even $1 million.

But one donation on that list caught my eye: The Adam Smith Foundation of Smithville, MO, put in $498,000.00. Missouri?

The Adam Smith Foundation is a 501(c)4 organization, which is required to submit a Form 990 showing income and expenses, as well as basic information about officers, the kinds of things they spent their money on, and possible conflicts of interest. Their 990 for 2007 [pdf] shows $58,350.00 in contributions to the foundation, 2008 [pdf] shows $30,000.00, and 2009 [pdf] shows a mere $5162.40. It’s not like they were saving things up for a big election push in 2010, either. The cash on hand at the end of 2009 was just $109.09. But somehow, someway, these plucky Missouri conservatives managed to scrape together almost half a million dollars in 2010.

On the last line of the last page of the 2009 Form 990, they describe their purpose as “to promote conservative principles and individual liberties in Missouri.” Their own website describes the purpose in more detail, speaking of their opposition to activist judges, needing to cut taxes, supporting education reform, and so forth.  But how spending just shy of half a million dollars on a California ballot measure in 2010 achieves that purpose is, shall we say, murky at best.

Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times tried to find out more back in August:

The organization was established in 2007 by a group of conservative political activists, some of whom were associated with former Missouri Gov. Matthew Blunt (whose father is Roy Blunt, the former House Republican leader currently running for U.S. Senate).

Its guiding spirit is James Harris, a political consultant in the Missouri capital, who says he was driven to found the group by “a need to have right-of-center organizations to counter the aggressive policies of the left, radicals like George Soros, and their ideas that are truly in contradiction to free markets.”

I asked him why the foundation got involved in California. “When you look at — no offense — liberal politicians out there running California into the ground, often crazy radical ideas start in California and start moving,” he said. (No offense, but the environmental program that Proposition 23 would overturn is a pet project of our Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

“California has some pretty crazy lawmakers who want to attack families’ and individuals’ opportunities to provide for themselves, and these are disastrous ideas,” Harris continued. “We want to make sure these types of ideas out West do not take hold.”

I’m not so convinced the foundation’s interest is so principled. Until now, it confined itself to a couple of local issues in Missouri. It spent $4,000 last year to support a proposal to kill the state’s nonpartisan judge-selection process in favor of one subject to more political wrangling, and $2,500 to defeat a 63-cent tax levy in a local school district. The year before that it raised $30,000, made a single $2,000 grant, and spent $22,500 on professional fees and payments to “independent contractors.”

But it gets better (emphasis added):

The foundation’s president, John Elliott, told me the Proposition 23 campaign is its first venture outside Missouri. He said the money for the donation came from “fewer than 10 individuals, not industry or corporations.” He said the foundation’s involvement in the California campaign was initiated by the donors, not the foundation’s four-member board.

Who in Missouri could have an interest in killing a California greenhouse gas program? Harris and Elliott both went out of their way, curiously, to mention the effect environmental regulations have on coal. “Anything to do with energy affects Missouri, No. 1 because we rely heavily on coal,” Elliott said. Harris observed, “We in Missouri generate 80% of our electricity from coal.”

The No on 23 campaign points out that Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., which bills itself as the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, has contributed $30,000 to the Proposition 23 campaign. It also turned up the fact that several utilities are clients of a marketing and website design firm run by Elliott and his wife.

I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

If you’re into irony, the story gets better still. Back in 2007, the Adam Smith Foundation ran ads in Missouri on reforming the process of selecting judges. Their reason for opposing the current process? Lack of accountability and openness in the process.

We all better get used to coincidences and irony.

Grandma Millie and her bridge club pals may have gotten their revenge and stopped the energy companies on Prop 23, but the model of using a 501(c)4 group like the Adam Smith Foundation is one we will see a lot of in the next two years.

(photo h/t to Spirit-Fire)