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Climate Politics Almanac: 2023 Election Recap
Governors, legislatures, and down-ballot results for climate hawks
The incumbent governors in Kentucky and Mississippi were re-elected in Tuesday’s two gubernatorial elections. Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear was re-elected, and used his acceptance speech to personally thank Hadley Duvall, a rape survivor who spoke out powerfully against the extreme position on abortion held by Beshear’s opponent. Beshear will now get another term to promote new manufacturing and EV jobs despite the legislature’s best efforts to prop up King Coal.
In Mississippi, Republican governor Tate Reeves defeated Democratic Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, whose campaign for Medicaid expansion and against Reeves’ corruption was not enough to overcome Mississippi’s strong Republican tilt.
In Virginia, Democrats kept their majority in the state senate by a 21-19 margin, and flipped control of the House of Delegates, winning at least a 51-48 majority. (The Republican candidate is holding on to a slim lead in the race for HD 82, but that race has not been called.) The majority maker was Climate Cabinet-endorsed Michael Feggans in HD 97, where investments to protect Virginia Beach from flooding are an important issue. Joshua Cole, a Mountain Valley Pipeline opponent endorsed by both Climate Cabinet and Lead Locally, won his election for HD 65 around Fredericksburg. With Lead Locally’s support, activist Nadarius Clark was elected to represent the Suffolk-based HD 84.
Climate Cabinet also endorsed Russet Perry in her successful Loudon County race for SD 31, where she prevailed over a far-right son of a billionaire. For his leadership backing clean energy investments in a swing district centered around Newport News, Climate Cabinet had endorsed Democratic senator Monty Mason (D-SD 24). Mason was narrowly defeated by Danny Diggs, causing a net loss of one seat for Virginia Senate Democrats. Nevertheless, the June primary victories of Senators-elect Lachrese Aird, Jennifer Carrol Foy, and Saddam Azlan Salim, along with the retirement of Dominion Energy ally Dick Saslaw, will likely add up to a more progressive and unified Democratic caucus in the senate next year.
With these results, Virginia is likely to continue as the clean energy leader of the South. Democrats have dealt a serious blow to governor Glenn Youngkin’s plans to dismantle the climate progress made under his predecessor. In interviews with Inside Climate News, environmental leaders previewed their strategy for expanding rooftop solar and offshore wind even as Youngkin, who is described as “mostly hostile to climate policy,” remains in office for two more years. Inside Climate News notes:
One area where the Democrats now hold complete control is over the State Corporation Commission, or SCC, the regulatory body that oversees insurance, businesses, and—critically for the state’s climate goals—utilities. In Virginia, the dominant utilities are Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company.
The SCC is meant to set utility rates that are fair for both consumers and companies. It also approves or denies the utilities’ decarbonization plans, which are needed to comply with emissions reductions mandated in the Clean Economy Act.
At the moment, the SCC is not fully operational. While two members are needed for the SCC to issue rulings, only one seat on the three-person board is filled. But SCC positions are legislative appointments, meaning with Democrats in the majority, they now control who will fill the two empty positions.
“The future of the SCC is in their hands,” said Shelby Green, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group.
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With Virginia’s legislature now under unified Democratic control, Pennsylvania now holds the distinction of being the only state in the nation with divided partisan control of its legislative chambers. Democrats’ efforts to hold the state house and flip the state senate will be another area where the Keystone State is a pivotal electoral battleground in 2024.
In advance of those elections next year, Democrats had a pretty good night in Pennsylvania. The headline was Dan McCaffery’s victory in the open race for Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which allowed Democrats to maintain a 5-2 majority on the court against a deluge of money from climate denier and GOP megadonor Jeffrey Yass. Yass was also unsuccessful in his effort to beat progressive climate hawk Sara Innamorato, who won her election for Allegheny County Executive. It wasn’t a clean sweep in Allegheny County, however, as Yass spent big to help District Attorney Stephen Zappala win re-election as an independent after he lost the Democratic primary. Carl Redwood, who’d been endorsed by Lead Locally, lost his bid for the County Council seat held by centrist incumbent DeWitt Walton.
Democrats held their majorities in the swing Philadelphia suburban counties of Bucks and Chester, and won their first majority on the Dauphin County (Harrisburg) Commission in over 100 years. One of the most remarkable stories occurred in Luzerne County, the competitive northeastern county that encompasses Wilkes-Barre. This region is arguably one of the most politically consequential in the country. It swung heavily away from Democrats and toward Trump in 2016 and 2020, contributing to a 10-1 Republican majority on the County Council. With six of these seats up in 2023, Climate Cabinet endorsed Democrats Brittany Stephenson, Jimmy Sabatino, Joanna Bryn Smith, Patrick Kurhnowski, and Michelle Rothenbecker, in a bid to bring the council closer to parity in a county that is home to 16 hazardous waste sites, 13 abandoned mines, and six superfund sites. All but Rothenbecker won, substantially expanding Democrats’ presence on a legislative body that will oversee crucial gas line expansion proposals and environmental justice issues in the years to come.
Governor Josh Shapiro— who resolved a feud with his left flank over school vouchers earlier this year— again made nice with the left by bucking the Philadelphia Democratic establishment and supporting Working Families Party (WFP) Kendra Brooks’ re-election to her at-large council seat. After Brooks and fellow WFP candidate Nicholas O’Rourke both won council seats, there will be no Republicans on Philadelphia’s city council for the first time in modern history.
In a potentially fortuitous sign for democracy,1 voters in Ohio exerted their will over Republicans’ gerrymandered legislative supermajorities, and approved Issues 1 and 2, enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution and legalizing marijuana. Nonetheless, Republican state legislative leaders are saying “this is not the end of the conversation” with respect to abortion rights.
After utilities outspent proponents by a huge ratio, voters in Maine rejected Question 3, which would have converted Maine’s investor-owned utilities into the publicly owned Pine Tree Power Company.
In Texas, voters approved Prop 7, authorizing a $10 billion fund that will be used mostly for subsidized loans to gas projects. The initiative had backing from ConocoPhillips, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, and Koch Industries, among other fossil fuel interests. The grid-reliability arguments that fossil fuel companies used to support Prop 7 are demonstrable lies, and as E&E News reports, there are “open questions about whether the loans will be able to attract significant new investment, since gas plants are more expensive to operate and may not bring in enough revenue on the electricity market.”
In Midland, Texas, voters passed a $1.4 billion school bond over the strenuous opposition of ecofascist oil tycoon Tim Dunn, who has worked hard to stop school funding measures in the Lone Star State.
Our electoral preview focused on municipal elections in Houston, Spokane, and Duluth. In the Houston mayoral race, centrist Democratic state senator John Whitmire finished first with a little over 42% of the vote, while Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee came in second with about 35% of the vote. The two will compete in a runoff on December 9, and Whitmire is seen as the favorite.
In Spokane, most of Lead Locally's endorsed climate hawks appear to have won. Former Washington Senate majority leader Lisa Brown holds a lead over Republican mayor Nadine Woodward, and Paul Dillon and Kitty Klitzke are leading in their council elections. Meanwhile, in so-called “climate proof Duluth,” the results weren’t so kind to climate action. Propelled by Republican donations, self-described “business Democrat” Roger Reinert defeated incumbent “climate-friendly” mayor Emily Larson, and Arik Foreman and Lynn Marie Nephew won at-large council seats over progressives Jenna Yeakle and Miranda Pacheco. Elsewhere in Minnesota, it was a better night for the left, as voters elected a progressive majority on the Minneapolis City Council, an all-female city council in St. Paul, and St. Louis Park elected 27-year old Nadia Mohammed as the country’s first Somali American mayor.
A number of candidates on Lead Locally’s Green New Deal slate pulled off big wins: Tucson mayor Regina Romero was re-elected; former Environmental League of Massachusetts director Juan Jaramillo won election to Revere’s city council; and utility critic Shammas Malik was elected mayor of Akron, Ohio. Climate organizer Dalton George was re-elected to his seat on the Boone, NC council. Dejuana Bigelow will continue her advocacy against the Mountain Valley Pipeline on the Burlington, NC city council, and Eugene Councilmember Lyndsey Leech will continue to press forward with prohibiting fossil fuels in new residential hookups. Don Orange, an incumbent on Vancouver, Washington’s Port Commission, won re-election after helping to block an oil export terminal. In another race with implications for fossil fuel exports, Maggie Sanders holds a narrow lead in her race for Olympia Port commissioner. Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda likely clinched a seat on the King County Council.
In other Washington races, WFP candidate John Boyd won a Kent council district over a candidate who claimed that people experiencing homeless have “an agenda.” Maren Costa— who was fired from Amazon after supporting unionization efforts and founding an organization called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice — had come in first in her primary election for Seattle Council District 1. The empire struck back, however, and a Chamber of Commerce front group spent heavily in support of Costa’s opponent, Facebook attorney Rob Saka. Saka ended up beating Costa for the Seattle council seat.
The Fort Collins, Colorado city council exerts control over the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), which makes it key to keeping PRPA on track for its goal of being carbon free by 2030. Accordingly, Climate Cabinet endorsed incumbent council members Emily Francis and Julie Pignataro, as well as Melanie Potyondy, in their campaigns for Fort Collins Council. All three were victorious, as Potyondy prevailed over a council member who had blocked a minimum wage increase, Pignatoro defeated a NIMBY, and Francis beat an opponent who clarified that he was “not a white supremacist anymore.” In another northern Colorado election, Climate Cabinet had endorsed Loveland council candidate Kat McManus, but she fell short— a setback in the attempt to shift the balance of power away from fracking interests.
Another Climate Cabinet endorsee, Monica Montgomery Steppe, won a special election for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, giving Democrats a majority on the Board as the county prepares to update its climate action plan.
In Holyoke, Massachusetts, Lead Locally-endorsed Guy O’Donnell was defeated in his run for city council, and Green New Deal slate member Samantha Perlman narrowly lost her race for mayor of Marlborough, Mass. Jonathan Gray lost his race for Taunton council. Former Republican Congressman Mike Coffman— a climate change denier—was re-elected as mayor of Aurora, Colorado over Lead Locally endorsee Juan Marcano. Lead Locally also supported Durham, NC council candidate Khalilah Karim, but she finished fourth in a top three election.
After many delays, Michigan Democrats finally used their newly won trifecta to approve a suite of policies shifting the state to a 100% clean energy mandate. This victory came not a moment too soon, as Democratic state representatives Lori Stone and Kevin Coleman won contests on Tuesday to become mayor in the cities of Warren and Westland, respectively. The majority in the Michigan House of Representatives will now be evenly divided, although Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) will remain in charge of the tied chamber until special elections take place for Stone and Coleman’s seats.
Louisiana’s runoff elections for treasurer, attorney general, and secretary of state will be held on November 18. Anti-pipeline and coal ash organizer Pearl Walker, who is endorsed by Lead Locally, will also compete in a runoff election for Memphis city council on that date. Lead Locally has endorsed Jonathan Greider in a Waterloo, Iowa council election that is headed to a runoff in four weeks. Finally, Lead Locally is supporting several mayoral and council candidates poised to implement a new Utah law empowering municipalities to pursue 100% clean energy. Runoff elections will be taking place in Murray and Salt Lake City, Utah on November 21.
Should it qualify for the ballot, an independent redistricting commission would have a good chance of winning approval from Ohio voters next year, since the idea has broad popular appeal. Still, as David Dayen points out, there are major pitfalls with using the passage of Issues 1 and 2 or any other 2023 results to make predictions about 2024: “You need look only at the Ohio exit polling this week, where voters for Joe Biden were actually in the majority of the electorate by a couple of points, to get a sense of this. Nobody expects Biden to win Ohio next year.”