2023 Electoral Preview: States

Climate politics in 2023's state elections: Wisconsin, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia

Just weeks into the 118th Congress, it is clear that the dominant political story on the Hill will be the band of fossil fuel allies that constitute current Republican congressional leadership carrying out their threat to force a U.S. government default. Much of the most consequential climate politics will take place in state and local elections, however. Having previewed 2023’s big city mayoral races, we continue our 2023 preview with a look at state elections.1

Wisconsin Supreme Court/State Senate special election (April 4)

Democratic governor Tony Evers just began his second term, and will continue playing a vital role blocking extreme legislation from Republicans who very nearly have veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers. In a swing state where democracy is hanging by a thread, the special election for the seat vacated by state senator Alberta Darling (R-SD8-Germantown) will determine whether Republicans maintain their supermajority, and an election for state Supreme Court will be decide majority control.

Mississippi statewide elections (August 8 primary, November 7 general)

All legislative seats and statewide offices are up in this climate-vulnerable Gulf state and hotbed of environmental injustice. Republican governor Tate Reeves is running for a second term, but may face a challenge in both the primary and the general, owing in part to a scandal involving steering state welfare resources to help a wealthy former NFL star build a volleyball arena. Reeves’ Democratic opponent is likely to be conservative Public Services Commissioner Brandon Presley.

Louisiana statewide elections (October 14 open primary, November 18 runoff)

Hurricane Ida, August 2021

When the Louisiana legislature convenes for its election-year session this April, there are at least two major climate issues expected to come up. Pelican State legislators will need to figure out how to address the property insurance “meltdown” in this low-lying petrostate, and whether to follow similarly situated Florida lawmakers by making it easier for insurance companies to deny claims, making it harder to obtain affordable insurance through the state-run reinsurer, and foisting more risk onto that reinsurer. Another major question is whether Louisiana will build on anti-ESG actions by passing legislation aimed at advancing attacks on “woke capitalism,” which is projected to be costly for the state. (The “woke capitalism” narrative is being pushed by the State Financial Officers Foundation, SFOF, which is chaired by Louisiana treasurer John Schroder).

Facing a Republican legislative supermajority, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards has limited leverage, and has repeatedly signed far-right legislation on abortion and other issues. Bel Edwards is termed out, and the field to succeed him is not totally settled.

Attorney General Jeff Landry was the first declared candidate among Republicans, though he’s not universally loved within the GOP (the lieutenant governor described him as “not a good person”). It looked like Senator John Kennedy—an insurrectionist and faux populist who vacillates between periodically siding with labor and consumer interests and viciously attacking climate hawks— would enter the race as a frontrunner. But Kennedy announced he would not run, which apparently prompted John Schroder to get in. Richard Nelson, a 36-year old state representative, appears to be pursuing a strategy of trying to win over moderates. Congressman Garret Graves, the top Republican on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis until he announced it would be disbanded, is reportedly considering running.

On the Democratic side, the likeliest candidate for governor is state transportation secretary Shawn Wilson, who has formed an exploratory committee. There has been speculation that Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, former Rep. Cedric Richmond, or former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu may run. Richmond or Landrieu would have to give up respective senior advisory roles at the DNC and within the Biden administration.

Republican Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon grappled with the injustices that climate is placing on the insurance market when he lost his effort in court to make State Farm pay claims for New Orleans residents whose property was damaged by Hurricane Ida. Donelon is 78 years old and has been in office since 2006. He has not yet announced whether he intends to seek another term, so there are no officially declared candidates yet. With Schroder running for governor, there will be an open seat for treasurer. Additionally, there will be elections for numerous statewide offices, including attorney general, secretary of state, etc., and Republicans will aim to maintain their legislative supermajority as all state senate and house seats are up.

Kentucky statewide elections (May 16 primary/November 7 general)

Governor Andy Beshear tours the Eastern Kentucky region devastated by floods on June 29, 2022.

In 2019, Democratic governor Andy Beshear ousted an unpopular Republican incumbent by roughly 5,000 votes. Beshear will surely face a tough re-election campaign this year, but the 2022 defeat of an anti-abortion constitutional ballot measure seems to have Kentucky Democrats cautiously optimistic that Beshear can win. Gov. Beshear enjoys strong approval ratings, thanks in part to deft navigation of multiple crises, including the pandemic, and fossil fueled devastation from tornadoes and flooding. Beshear has promoted an “all of the above” energy strategy, but has secured federal funds for coal reclamation, and won plaudits for being more honest than past governors about the need for a just transition.

Much like their counterparts in other fossil fuel extraction states, Kentucky Republicans, including Attorney General Daniel Cameron and state Treasurer Allison Ball, have been at the forefront of promoting the “woke capitalism” narrative. Facing veto-proof Republican majorities in the legislature, Beshear was the first Democratic governor to sign an ALEC-drafted bill prohibiting Kentucky from investing with institutions supposedly boycotting fossil fuels. Ball has been an active SFOF member. Cameron has aggressively used his office to take action against financial institutions that form net zero goals or factor climate risk into their activity. He is now being sued by the Kentucky Bankers Association, who claim their relief investments following Kentucky’s climate disasters compel them to take climate risks into consideration.

There are many candidates competing in the Republican primary to take on Beshear. The frontrunner is probably Cameron, who is endorsed by Trump and helped the former president confirm anti-climate Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch while working for Sen. Mitch McConnell. Other notable candidates include Kelly Craft, the wife of a coal executive who served as Trump’s Ambassador to the UN; Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles; and Auditor Mike Harmon.

Ball is termed out as treasurer, and is running for the state auditor position being vacated by Harmon. The fields in the auditor election, as well as in the open treasurer and attorney general elections, are still developing. (State rep. Pamela Stevenson, who is running for AG, is the only Democrat other than Beshear who has declared for statewide office so far. Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams will be favored to win re-election.)

Virginia state legislative elections (November 7 general)

Republican governor Glenn Youngkin, a fossil fuel financing private equity executive, came into office last year promising not just to ban books but to dismantle his predecessor’s climate agenda. So far, his plans to weaken or even repeal Virginia’s Clean Economy Act and confirm coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as an environmental regulator have been thwarted by Democratic control of the state senate. (Youngkin circumvented the state senate by naming Wheeler to a different position.) The legislature is also scrutinizing a Youngkin-backed move in November to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Youngkin also recently joined the chorus of ESG attacks on the right.

Securing a Republican trifecta in Virginia’s legislative elections this fall may well be integrated into Youngkin’s apparent strategic angling for a spot on the 2024 GOP ticket. Republicans need to flip at least three seats to win a majority in the State Senate, while Democrats need to flip three seats to win back a majority in the House of Delegates. We focused on the seats that are likeliest to be competitive in a previous post, and one of them received an early test. After Republican state senator Jen Kiggans defeated Rep. Elaine Luria in a congressional district that became more Republican after redistricting, Democratic Virginia Beach Councilmember Aaron Rouse defeated Republican Navy veteran Kevin Adams in a January 10 special election, thereby expanding the Democratic majority in the VA senate to 22-18. Rouse and Adams are expected to face off again in the November general election for SD 22, which is a bluer district.

1 In addition to the races covered here, there will also be elections for New Jersey General Assembly. Check out Primary School’s 2023 overview for a calendar.

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