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The Climate Politics Almanac: Key state and local primaries

The race for the U.S. Senate; open governor's races; Los Angeles mayor

We continue our preview of primary season with a look at some high-profile open races and a couple of primaries that could prove decisive in the race for control of the U.S. Senate. The season has in fact already begun: today is election day in San Francisco and Milwaukee.

PA-SEN: Open seat (May 7)

Don and Pat. Credit: Sean McKeag

With ultra right-wing Republican (and aspiring Don’t Look Up cast member) Senator Pat Toomey retiring, Pennsylvania’s open Senate race is one of the most important for determining control of the US Senate. In the Democratic primary, the frontrunners are Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and Rep. Conor Lamb, both from the western part of the state. Fetterman’s past support from Bernie Sanders and “workers, wages, and weed” populism has bolstered his progressive credentials, although he’s been critical of Sanders and others who want to ban fracking. Lamb, who defends fracking staunchly, has voted against amendments that would have helped fight wildfires, limited expansion of oil drilling in Alaska and off the coast of California, and even opposed an effort to guard government scientific research against interference by climate change deniers within the Trump administration. Polls show Fetterman leading Lamb, with state representative Malcolm Kenyatta closely behind. Kenyatta favors a moratorium on fracking and has support from progressive organizations like the Working Families Party and Democracy for America, and in January released a poll showing him ahead of Lamb. The withdrawal of Sean Parnell amidst child abuse allegations has left a crowded Republican primary with no clear favorite, and millions are being spent in the contest between anti-science television doctor Mehmet Oz and hedge fund manager David McCormick.

OR-GOV: Open seat (May 17)

Governor Kate Brown has led this wildfire-ravaged state since 2015, and has strengthened Oregon’s clean energy standards and used executive action to overcome Republican state legislators’ repeated walk-outs, which thwarted cap-and-trade legislation. Brown is ineligible to run for another term, and the Democratic primary to succeed her has attracted a large pool of candidates. Assuming New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof does not succeed in his suit for the right to run in this race, this Democratic primary will likely come down to two major contenders. Former State House Speaker Tina Kotek, who has represented northeast Portland since 2007, is the endorsed choice of a wide number of labor, progressive, and environmental organizations. In its endorsement of Kotek, the Oregon LCV credited Brown’s climate accomplishments mostly to Kotek’s persistence. Treasurer Tobias Read calls climate change a top priority and notes that he has increased Oregon’s investments in clean energy, but he has a discernibly more centrist record than Kotek’s, including helping to defeat a 2020 ballot measure to expand public transit in Portland.

Los Angeles Mayor: Open seat (June 7)

While he awaits Senate confirmation as Ambassador to India, Mayor Eric Garcetti is serving the final year of his second term, setting the stage for Los Angeles’ first-ever even-year mayoral election. The top-two finishers on June 7 will compete in the general election on November 8. June’s open mayoral contest comes after a recent vote by the LA City Council to phase out oil and gas drilling in this car-obsessed, second-largest city in the country. The next mayor will need to figure out to plug thousands of abandoned and idle oil wells in the city, manage expansion of numerous rail and infrastructure projects, and integrate environmental justice concerns into preparations for LA to host the 2028 Olympics. Rep. Karen Bass has emerged as the favorite in this race, lining up a huge number of endorsements from Los Angeles’ congressional delegation and political establishment. Bass was progressives’ preferred choice to be Joe Biden’s running mate in 2020, owing to her solid track record of voting with the CPC, including an 88% lifetime score from LCV. Also in the race is City Councilmember Kevin de León, who made accelerating California’s renewable electricity standard portfolio to 50 percent by 2030 his landmark achievement as president of the State Senate. Rounding out the field of notable candidates are City Attorney Mike Feuer, whose longtime consumer and environmental protection record is clouded by an ethics scandal with the city’s Department of Water and Power, and City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who is running on his record in law enforcement.

MD-GOV: Open seat (June 28)

Candidate Wes Moore at a crab bake, natch. Credit: Hannah Gaskill

It has been eight years since Democrats have controlled a governing trifecta in the coastal blue state of Maryland, and the June 28 primary here will determine the frontrunner to put the state back at the forefront of climate action. Environmental policy played a role in the 2014 upset victory of Republican governor Larry Hogan, who defeated former lieutenant governor Anthony Brown by running ads labeling a stormwater remediation fee meant to pay for pollution cleanup a “rain tax.” Outgoing governor Martin O’Malley miscalculated, finalizing regulations to restrict fracking seemingly under the assumption that Hogan would rescind any tougher measure such as an outright ban. Three years later, climate activists forced Hogan into supporting a permanent fracking ban. 

The Democratic primary field in the race to succeed Hogan is very crowded, so we will just review the most noteworthy candidates. Nonprofit executive Wes Moore surprised many observers recently when he turned out to be leading the pack in fundraising. Moore has suggested building on Maryland’s Clean Energy Jobs Act through a “cap and invest” program, and his choice of former Del. Aruna Miller as his running mate is considered an indicator that he is the field’s most progressive candidate.

Comptroller Peter Franchot is another top contender, though his tacit support for Hogan over climate hawk Ben Jealous in the 2018 governor’s race should be disqualifying.

Tom Perez had a number of progressive accomplishments as labor secretary and assistant AG during the Obama administration, but was pushed by Obama into beating out Keith Ellison for an uninspiring tenure as DNC Chair instead of running against Hogan four years ago. Perez calls natural gas an “indispensable” part of Maryland’s energy mix for now, though he also says he wants to build on the offshore wind expansion that was initiated under O’Malley.

Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker is considered a moderate figure in the race, and has committed to taking a local approach to tackling climate change. Former Education Secretary John King criticized Franchot for teaming with Hogan to widen Maryland highways, and has released a detailed climate plan. Former state AG Doug Gansler’s implosion during his last run for governor has led pundits not to take him very seriously in this race, but he has emphasized his experience going after polluters in making the case for himself.

WI-SEN: Incumbent Ron Johnson (R) (August 9)

Ronnie and Donnie. Credit: Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Another crucial pickup opportunity if Democrats hope to maintain control of the US Senate is Wisconsin, where a crowded Democratic primary has materialized to take on Senator Ron Johnson, one of the most vocal climate deniers and insurrectionists in Congress. At least at this early stage, the favorite appears to be Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who has consolidated support from many progressive grassroots organizations and well-known congressional officials. We will see what happens once 34-year old businessman/Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Alex Lasry spends more of his money. Perhaps inspired by the fact that Wisconsin has literally elected the Bucks’ owner to the Senate in the past, Lasry, the son of a hedge fund billionaire and fracking booster, has waged his campaign on his role in building a new stadium for the NBA champions. Treasurer Sarah Godlewski rescinded a climate gag order imposed by her predecessor as one of her first moves in office, but so far has not gained much momentum beyond her endorsement from EMILY’s List. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson has a populist message, a string of electoral victories in tough red terrain, and arguably the strongest climate credentials in the race, in light of his endorsement from the Sunrise Movement. He’s the only candidate openly campaigning against the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline.

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