Seven Republican-led states voted for Democratic governors this week in an election that could shift the landscape for climate and clean energy policies, especially in the increasing number of states where Democrats will also dominate the legislature.
Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine and Wisconsin are all switching from Republican to Democratic governors.
In 14 states, Democrats will have a “trifecta” of the governor’s office and control of both houses of the legislatures, with Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine and New York joining eight others.
That broadens the list of states where ambitious clean energy standards, carbon-reduction initiatives and other climate policies are likely more politically viable than before, environmental advocates say. It also is likely to strengthen state-level opposition to the Trump administration’s moves to weaken pollution controls.
“We know that governors are the ones who make decisions on how the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and other environmental safeguards promulgated by the EPA (federal Environmental Protection Agency) are enforced,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, its political arm. “Does a coal plant stay on line, or is it replaced with clean energy? Governors have a tremendous voice in that question. Do we invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure or do we transition to clean energy? Governors have a big voice in that.”
The six states that are gaining Democratic trifectas may be the first places where renewable energy agendas advance, said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. That happened this year in New Jersey, a trifecta state where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has signed several clean energy-related bills and orders since taking office in January.
Republicans continue to have an edge at the state level, controlling the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in at least 21 states. The party is on track to have 27 governors. While some of Republican governors, like Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Maryland’s Larry Hogan, support clean energy and climate policies, many of them are opposed.
“We’re not going to make progress everywhere,” Karpinski said. “Unfortunately, the leadership of the Republican party is bought and sold by the fossil fuel industry, these days, so you’re not going to get comprehensive solutions in some of these states.”
Karpinski said that in states where GOP legislatures block action, the environmental movement will look to leadership in cities that are setting ambitious goals.
The 7 States that Flipped from GOP Governors to Democrats
Four of the seven states that switched to Democratic governors are in the Midwest, partially reversing the region’s swing toward Republicans in 2014.
In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislator, defeated Republican Bill Schuette, the state attorney general. Whitmer had support from environmental advocates because of her criticism of Enbridge’s Line 5 fossil fuel pipeline and her support for moving to 100 percent renewable energy. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder had reached the state’s term limit.
Wisconsin Democrat Tony Evers beat Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a close race that was near the 1 percent mark that could trigger a runoff. Walker, a Republican, had made an enemy of environmental groups with an array of positions on clean air, water and clean energy (along with outraging public employees for his moves against collective bargaining). However, rapid policy changes are not likely in Wisconsin because Republicans retained control of the legislature.
Maine is poised for a major change in direction on climate and clean-energy policy with the election of Democrat Janet Mills, who will replace term-limited Republican Gov. Paul LePage, an outspoken foe of wind energy who also has sought to reduce how much utilities pay to rooftop solar owners who sell power to the grid. Mills, the state attorney general, would seek to reverse LePage’s actions on renewable energy, which could give new lift to Maine’s stalled ambitions to develop offshore wind. She defeated Republican Shawn Moody, an auto-body business owner who had said he would carry on LePage’s legacy.
In Illinois, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, a venture capitalist, defeated Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Pritzker has said he wants the state to move to 100 percent renewable energy. Rauner supported some renewable energy efforts, including as part of a 2016 law that is now boosting the state’s solar power, but he also supported easing pollution rules for coal-fired power plants.
Nevada could become a leader on renewable energy with the election of Democrat Steve Sisolak, who made support for solar power part of his campaign. Sisolak, chair of the county commission in the county that includes Las Vegas, defeated Adam Laxalt, the state attorney general, who had sued the Obama administration over environmental issues and had criticized Sisolak’s positions on renewable energy. Sisolak will replace term-limited Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose tenure included a drastic reduction in support for rooftop solar that was so unpopular the policy was reversed.
In New Mexico, solar-power-friendly policies will have a better chance of passing with Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, a member of Congress, elected governor, replacing a term-limited Republican who vetoed solar incentives three times. Lujan Grisham defeated Republican Steve Pearce, also a member of Congress, who had strong support from the oil and gas industry.
Kansas, a leading wind energy state, elected Democrat Laura Kelly, a state legislator who has supported clean energy policies. Kelly defeated Republican Kris Kobach, the secretary of state who drew national attention for using unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud to try to make it harder for people to vote, attacked Kelly for her support of state requirements that utilities obtain at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.
“For the next two years, most clean energy and climate policy action will likely continue to be at the state and local level, with last night’s election results creating a host of new opportunities,” said Trevor Houser, head of the energy and climate practice at Rhodium Group, an economic and policy research firm.
Colorado, Oregon Keep Governor’s Offices in Democratic Hands
In Colorado and Oregon, two states where climate and clean energy issues are on the agenda, Democrats retained control of the governor’s offices.
In Colorado, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, prevailed over Republican Walker Stapleton, the state treasurer, in a race with clear contrasts on environment and energy issues. Polis has embraced a plan for 100 percent renewable energy, while Stapleton talked about developing the state’s oil and gas resources. Polis replaces Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who could not run again because of term limits.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, won a second term, defeating Knute Buehler, a state legislator. She has supported plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of clean energy, a policy direction that she says she will continue.
Republicans Also Held on in Some States Democrats Hoped to Flip
Republicans had their share of wins, retaining control in states where Democrats had hoped to prevail.
In Ohio, Republican Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, defeated Democrat Richard Cordray, a former state attorney general and the first director of the Federal Consumer Protection Bureau. Cordray’s loss is a blow to clean energy advocates who had hoped to see a counterweight to a Republican-controlled legislature that has been hostile to renewable energy.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, won re-election, defeating Democrat James Smith, a state legislator. Smith is a strong supporter of solar power, while McMaster stressed his own opposition to offshore oil drilling.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, won a second term, defeating Democrat Molly Kelly, a former state legislator. Sununu vetoed a bill this year that would have expanded net metering, a system for compensating rooftop solar owners. Clean energy advocates supported Kelly.
In Oklahoma, Republican Kevin Stitt, a business executive, was elected governor over Democrat Drew Edmondson, a former state attorney general. Stitt benefited from support from the oil and gas industry, one of the most influential interests in the state.
In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, in a race so close it triggered a statewide recount, announced on Nov. 10. Gillum made climate change part of his campaign in a state that has been dealing with toxic algae blooms and flooding from rising seas. DeSantis, who until recently was a member of Congress, rejects climate science and has said he is “not a global warming person.”
Top photo: Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor of Michigan and will replace a Republican. Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images