Democrats seized control of the Virginia legislature in this week's election, likely smoothing a path toward full participation in a regional carbon-trading market and giving the state a chance to lead the south on climate policy.
In a light, off-year election nationally, Virginia's legislative races stood out. Both the Virginia House and Senate flipped from Republican control to Democrat. That new Democratic legislature will now be pressed to back an aggressive carbon reduction goal—100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050—and environmental advocates said they expect the new majority might be willing to go along.
"The legislature now has a mandate to act on climate change and clean energy," said Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. That group, through its political action committee, said it spent $1.5 million on ads and organizing to flip both houses.
Elsewhere, Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, one of the nation's loudest and most strident pro-coal and anti-climate science political figures, appeared to narrowly lose to Democrat Andy Beshear. In a state with deep social and historical connections to coal, Beshear had steered clear of anything related to nationally prominent Democrats' calls for moving the United States toward a carbon-free economy by mid-century.
Advocates were also calling out a few local races across the country as significant, including a utility regulator's seat in Mississippi and the mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee.
But it was Virginia—a state already struggling with sea level rise and vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes—where the voters spoke the loudest.
Once considered solidly Republican, Virginia has now voted for Democratic presidential candidates in three straight election cycles. Veteran University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato declaring on MSNBC Tuesday night: "It's hard to believe that the Democrats control everything in Virginia. Absolutely everything."
The implications are sizeable.
Virginia regulators in April approved a new rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from large fossil fuel electric power plants by 30 percent by 2030.
Northam had already sought to bring Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state carbon cap-and-trade compact to curb pollution from the electricity sector, but Republican lawmakers had stalled that effort through budget maneuvers.
Environmentalists in January will be calling on lawmakers to lift the budget roadblock to the state's participation in RGGI and then go farther. They also expect new legislation to direct tens of millions of dollars a year in carbon auction payments the state anticipates receiving through RGGI toward energy efficiency programs and coastal climate resilience.
"The political calculus has shifted so much," said Tim Cywinski, communications coordinator for the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. "A lot of things we have been pressing for, for a long time, can actually cross the finish line."
That could mean providing the legislative punch to begin to carry out Northam's longer-term goal of carbon-free electricity by 2050, he said. Northam in September signed an executive order putting the state on the path to having all its electricity powered by carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and nuclear, by mid-century, on par with what scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Northam was also optimistic after the election, saying the results mean voters "want us to invest in clean energy and take bold action to combat climate change."
With the federal government pulling back from action on climate change—President Trump on Monday, for example, formally notified the United Nations that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris climate accord—action by states becomes more important, environmental advocates said.
"It is kind of all we have, these state efforts, that are trying to move the country forward," said Janet McCabe, a former top air official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now teaching law at Indiana University, referring to efforts like RGGI. "It is so much better when these states work together."
But it's not always easy.
Pennsylvania, one of the nation's largest coal- and natural gas-producing states, is also moving to join RGGI, but those efforts, too, could be hampered by Republican lawmakers. Gov. Tom Wolf has been looking into how far he can go without legislative approval.
The big win for Democrats in Virginia shows the party's turmoil earlier this year had little impact on the vote. Its three top elected officials had been embroiled in controversy: a blackface photo on Northam's college yearbook page; sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, which he denied; and Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted he had once appeared in blackface.
A Loss for Kentucky's Combative Governor?
In Kentucky, about 5,000 votes out of some 1.4 million cast separated the incumbent, Bevin, from Beshear, whose father served two terms as governor just prior to Bevin. Bevin has called for a recanvasing of the votes and has not conceded, while Beshear claimed victory and started to build his administration.
Bevin had wrapped himself in the mantle of President Donald Trump, who came to Kentucky to campaign for Bevin the day before the election, and he had emulated Trump's combative style.
While in office, Bevin proclaimed his support for coal, even if burning it meant potentially higher electricity rates for Kentuckians, and dismissed climate science. In September he called 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the young Swede who has inspired a global climate movement, "remarkably ill-informed."
Climate change "was not a subject (Beshear) wanted to talk about," said Al Cross, director of the Center for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky and a veteran political columnist. "He knew Republicans would take every opportunity they could to lump him in with national Democrats," Cross said.
All other Republicans running for statewide office that were on the ballot Tuesday in Kentucky won their races, which, Cross said, showed that "people didn't like Matt Bevin."
Polling had shown he was among the least popular governors in the country.
More Key Votes: Regulators, Mayors and Funding
Elsewhere, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy was celebrating two elections it considers important for the advancement of progressive energy policies in the South -- the election of Indya Kincannon as the new mayor of Knoxville, and the election of Brent Bailey to the Mississippi Public Service Commission.
Kincannon ran on a platform that included reducing Knoxville's carbon footprint. Knoxville is the hometown of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest public utility, and Kincannon is expected to push TVA toward more climate-friendly policies, said Stephen Smith, executive director of SACE. TVA has been under pressure to transition faster to renewable energy.
The three-member Mississippi Public Service Commission oversees electric utilities in the state, and Bailey joins one other commissioner with energy conservation priorities, which could help move that state "in a new direction," Smith said.
In Colorado, a coalition of environmental and sportsmen groups hailed the narrow victory for a statewide ballot measure that will allow sports betting to help finance water projects amid concerns that climate change will further shrink water supplies there. A 10 percent tax on casino receipts, capped at $29 million, would supplement what the state is already spending on conservation, new dams and other projects aimed at climate resilience.
Looking Ahead to 2020
One year out from the 2020 election, in Kentucky, one politician saw hope in the Bevin-Beshear race for her own future.
Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a Democrat seeking to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, noted Bevin's unpopularity.
"All I have to say is, Mitch, you're next," she wrote in an email to her supporters. A Morning Consult poll shows McConnell is the least popular senator among his constituents.
On Wednesday, McConnell announced he would join West Virginia senators in backing a bill to shore up a coal miners' pension fund that is running out of money, and make sure miners working for recently bankrupt coal companies get health insurance. The United Mine Workers of America has been critical of McConnell in the past for not getting behind efforts to save the pensions that support tens of thousands of retired miners.
"Earlier this week, I personally raised with President Trump the importance of protecting these coal miners' pensions and health retirement benefits, and I am committed to continuing to work with him and my colleagues in Congress towards a solution," McConnell said in a written statement.
McGrath's campaign drew a connection between McConnell's decision to back the miners' bill and Bevin's apparent loss on Tuesday.
"Kentucky voters sent Mitch McConnell a clear message," said McGrath Campaign Manager Mark Nicholas. "They are done with leaders who care more about their political party than their country, even if they have an 'R' after their name."
InsideClimate News reporter Judy Fahys contributed to this report.