How did Energy, Climate, and Environment do in the Midterm Elections?

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

Leading into the Midterm Elections this past month, much of our attention was focused toward the candidates running for office – from local school board seats to the United States Senate. At the same time, citizens of every state were not just voting on the people who will represent them, but in many states, they were also voting on ballot propositions: initiatives or referendums that respectively allowed voters to directly pass proposed legislation or to repeal current legislation. On a day that is the keystone of American democracy, citizens fulfilled their civic duty by not only selecting who would represent them and voting on local and state policy decisions, but by doing so, they actively decided how their city, state, and country will act on certain issues and calibrated the top priorities of the American people.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 turned out to be a particularly substantive political upheaval. Two years into the Trump administration, federal races and some key gubernatorial elections grabbed most of the headlines as Democrats aimed to flip the House and make inroads in state capitols. They largely succeeded: Democrats decisively seized control of the House of Representatives, bolstering a net gain of 39 seats (one final undecided election in California’s 21st District is still too close to call). They also managed to gain seven gubernatorial seats around the country (six of which had Republican incumbents). And while there is still a good deal of back-and-forth amongst pundits, political experts, and laypersons alike regarding whether the midterm elections were demonstratively a “blue wave,” it can at least be said that there was a demonstrative reaction to President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and his administration’s policies over the past two years.

But since elections are not solely about people but are also, at their core, about how the American people want to proceed on different issues, it is equally important to see this election through the lens of certain issues. Over the past two years, we observed a radical shift in the position of the United States on climate change and other environmental issues, including withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, roll-backs of Obama-era environmental initiatives such as the Clean Power Act and fossil fuel drilling on public lands, and the seeming obsolescence of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress, much of this went uninhibited. President Trump’s agenda, marked by environmental deregulation and a rejection of science in environmental policymaking, has left environmental groups and their supporters with few options besides litigation to push back against the administration’s most egregious moves. However, considering seriously elevated warnings around global warming from the IPCC’s Special Report back in October and the federal government’s National Climate Assessment report released just after Thanksgiving Day (and not coincidentally so), we must evaluate what this year’s midterm elections mean for energy, climate, and environmental issues going forward.

Who ran on environmental platforms? And who won?

When evaluating candidates, there’s always a bit of research to be done. Campaign advertisements and news coverage on TV or online can be telling of a candidate’s views and positions, but they’re not always useful and do not reveal enough detail to assess their potential impacts. Consequently, we can turn to campaign websites and other online articles and assessments about the candidate, as those are more opportune venues for candidates to explicitly outline their stances on the issues they care about most.

There were a handful of candidates who explicitly stated the importance of climate change and environmental management in their platforms. The Vote Climate U.S. Political Action Committee (PAC), which “works to elect candidates to get off fossil fuels, transition to clean, renewable energy, and put a fee on carbon in order to slow climate change and related weather extremes,” supported a list of priority candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Near the top of their list, Mike Levin (D) ran against Diane Harkey (R) (who ran in place of Darrell Issa, a prominent Republican climate skeptic who chose not to seek reelection) for California’s 49th district. Levin’s campaign page explicitly mentioned “Accelerating Sustainable Energy and Environmental Protection” as one of his top priorities, and emphasized his endorsements from both the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters. In a highly contentious race, Levin won by a margin of nearly 28,000 votes. In Minnesota, Angie Craig (D) included a section on “Protecting the Environment and Slowing the Pace of Climate Change” amongst her listed positions on various issues (though it wasn’t quite at the top of the page). Craig successfully unseated her opponent, Jason Lewis (R) in Minnesota’s 2nd district. Dean Phillips (D), running for Minnesota’s 3rd district, successfully unseated Republican incumbent Erik Paulsen, including both “Combating Climate Change” and “Clean Water and a Healthy Planet” in his campaign website’s list of his top priorities.

Other House candidates rated and prioritized highly by the Climate U.S. PAC included Abby Finkenaur (D, IA-1), Sharice Davids (D, KS-3), Mikie Sherrill (D, NJ-11), Susie Lee (NV-3), Susan Wild (D, PA-7), Donna Shalala (D, FL-27), Haley Stevens (D, MI-11), and Dan McCready (D, NC-9). Of these eight races, seven successfully defeated their Republican opponents (except for McCready). In two of these races, the seats were flipped (Finkenaur and Davids). Another particularly notable defeat was that of Dana Rohrabacher (R, CA-48), who had been one of the most strident climate change deniers in Congress.

In the U.S. Senate, there were three notable candidates who campaigned on prioritizing environmental issues. Bill Nelson (D-FL), running as an incumbent, emphasized “Protecting Florida’s environment” as one of his main priorities. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) also devoted a segment of her stances on key issues to “Energy and the Environment.” Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), while not explicitly designating climate change or environment as specific issues on his website, did bring up those issues in the broader categories of “Agriculture” and “Energy.”Of the three candidates, only Rosen defeated her opponent.

Wholesale, environmental issues gained serious ground in the U.S. House of Representatives, but not so much in the Senate, where Republicans expanded their majority by a net gain of 2 seats. However, there are some important takeaways from these outcomes. First, environmental issues still do not play an important role in campaigns (regardless of party affiliation). Considering how many races there were for Congress, it still did not seem that a whole lot of candidates were particularly outspoken about environmental issues as key positions of their platform. In a New York Times article released about a month before the midterm elections, Trip Gabriel states how, despite the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme events like floods and wildfires, “the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans running for federal office do not mention the threat of global warming in digital or TV ads, in their campaign literature or on social media,” which Gabriel states has been largely attributed to how low most Americans rank global warming as a national priority, and because of the risk it may pose to the success of Democratic candidates running in historically Republican districts or states. And second, environmental issues remain stiffly divided along party lines, as Republicans remain either notably silent on or outspokenly opposed to environmentally progressive policies and climate change action.

And so, at least on the federal level, we can nevertheless celebrate some gains made in Congress, since the new Democratic majority will soon be able to reign in some of the Trump administration’s most harmful actions toward the environment. However, we must still recognize how much progress there is still required toward making climate change the critical and common priority it must be for policymakers at all levels of government.

How did states do on the environment?

At the state level, there is a lot to consider. Aside from gubernatorial, state legislature, and local council and school board elections, there were also many ballot propositions in numerous states to be decided.

Of 36 gubernatorial races, Democrats managed to flip seven seats. After the votes were counted, 23 states now have Democratic governors and 27 states have Republican governors. Some particularly notable victories included that of Janet Mills (D-ME), Steve Sisolak (D-NV), and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), all of whom prioritized renewable energy and environmental policy in their campaign platforms. Assuming some consistency amongst other Democratic candidates in prioritizing environmental policy and climate action, progress was made for environmental issues on the gubernatorial landscape overall.

Equally as compelling was how ballot initiatives on energy, climate, and the environment performed across the country, which had decidedly mixed results. Ballotpedia usefully records and organizes ballot measures by topics and related sub-topics. Under the topic of “Environment,” there were six state ballot measures this year, only two of which passed.

  • Alaska Ballot Measure 1, Salmon Habitat Protections and Permits Initiative (2018) – Did Not Pass
  • California Proposition 3, Water Infrastructure and Watershed Conservation Bond Initiative (2018) – Did Not Pass
  • Florida Amendment 9, Ban Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling and Ban Vaping in Enclosed Indoor Workplaces Amendment (2018) – Passed
  • Georgia Amendment 1, Portion of Revenue from Outdoor Recreation Equipment Sales Tax Dedicated to Land Conservation Fund Amendment (2018) – Passed
  • Montana I-186, Requirements for Permits and Reclamation Plans of New Hard Rock Mines Initiative (2018) – Did Not Pass
  • Washington Initiative 1631, Carbon Emissions Fee Measure (2018) – Did Not Pass

Passing Florida Amendment 9, means that offshore drilling for oil and gas on lands beneath all state waters is banned, which is a significant victory as it runs counter to the Trump administration’s proposal to expand exploration and drilling off of the Atlantic coast. However, an unfortunate and notable loss was the defeat of Washington Initiative 1631, a particularly progressive initiative that would have enacted an emissions fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon (starting in January 2020) that would be annually increased by $2 until the state’s emissions reduction goals were met, and subsequently would have directed all of that revenue toward funding environmental programs and projects. The defeat marks a setback for state climate change legislation.

As for the sub-topic of “Energy,” results were equally mixed:

  • Arizona Proposition 127, Renewable Energy Standards Initiative (2018) – Did Not Pass
  • Nevada Question 3, Changes to Energy Market and Prohibit State-Sanctioned Electric-Generation Monopolies Amendment (2018) – Did Not Pass
  • Nevada Question 6, Renewable Energy Standards Initiative (2018) – Passed
  • Washington Advisory Vote 19, Non-Binding Question on Oil Spill Tax Repeal (2018) – Bill Repealed

The biggest victory on energy was the approval of Nevada Question 6, which supports an initiative to require electric utilities to obtain 50% percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2050. However, since this is an initiated constitutional amendment, it must be approved again in 2020 before it is officially amended into the state constitution. Arizona Prop 127, which is a very similar measure to Nevada Question 6, was overwhelmingly defeated and is a significant loss for renewable energy in a state where renewables continue to be a highly contentious political issue. Not listed in this sub-topic was California Proposition 6, which if passed would have repealed the state gas tax increase. However, the proposition did not pass, marking an environmental victory.

Overall, despite a couple of notable victories in Florida, Nevada, and California, environmental issues did not make much progress as some states decisively turned away from progressive environmental measures such as upgrading renewable electricity targets and passing a carbon tax. However, as ballot measures tend to resurface in subsequent elections, it’s important to monitor over the next few years if states choose to go another way with environmentally-oriented measures.

What does this all mean?

It is not easy to make a holistic assessment of environmental progress during the 2018 midterm elections, but it appears that the country is not ready to buy in on climate and environment as priority issues during federal and state elections. Gabriel’s assessment in the aforementioned New York Times article seems accurate and telling: as Americans continue to prioritize several other issues over environment, candidates and ballot measures will continue to reflect those priorities. While Democrats and progressives were particularly successful this past November, it remains unclear if Americans are any more prepared and or willing to act on climate change, and to what extent newly elected Democrats may willingly expend political capital to push for legislative action on these issues. Instead, the midterm elections can more readily be regarded as a general backlash to President Trump and his administration. And while it may yield positive change for environmental issues overall, it still says a lot that the country is as divided and reticent on climate change and environmental issues as it is – despite record-setting and destructive fires across California, more intense and frequent hurricanes and tropical storms along the eastern seaboard, and record-setting summer temperatures across much of the country.

Right now, it remains highly uncertain what the threshold will be to convince most Americans and the U.S. government that climate action is urgently required. At the very least, there is already a bipartisan carbon tax bill being proposed by legislators (which would charge $15 per ton of carbon emitted and increase that fee annually by $10) that may be seriously considered by Congress going into 2019. This is at least one indication that the outcomes of the 2018 midterm elections may be a significant step forward in what is still a very long road ahead for progress on environmental issues.