In an election that took many unexpected turns, Democrats made notable gains at the state level, winning control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in four states that now may be poised to pass climate and clean energy legislation that wouldn’t have had a chance before.
The states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota—have all seen environmental policies stymied by Republican leaders, but now Democrats have more latitude to take action.
In other states, having this “trifecta” of Democratic control has been essential for passing climate and clean energy legislation. But each of the four new members of the club will have their own approaches based on local factors, including whether their legislative majorities are large enough to allow for proposals that may inspire significant blowback.
“It’s fair to say… there was a green wave in the states across the country, a big green wave,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a post-election news conference.
And that was a surprise, considering the expectation from many observers that Republicans would benefit from a “red wave.”
Democrats had 14 state trifectas going into the election and Republicans had 23, according to Ballotpedia. The other states were under split control. Democrats picked up four more in Tuesday’s election, and Republicans haven’t yet gained any, but some of the results are still being determined. If Democrat Katie Hobbs is elected governor of Arizona, Republicans would cede their trifecta there, and Democrats would lose their trifectas in Nevada and Oregon if their candidates don’t prevail in tightly contested races for governor.
Having Democrats in charge in additional states becomes especially important if Republicans gain control of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, or both, although several unresolved races mean it’s not clear which party will control either chamber. If the GOP is running the House, the Senate or both, President Joe Biden will have a much more difficult time passing climate and energy legislation. It will be up to the states to fill in the gap, as they did during the Trump administration.
Also, the states have a major role to play in spending climate and clean energy program funding from the federal infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Democrat Wes Moore—the first Black governor of Maryland and the third elected Black governor in the U.S.—easily defeated Republican Dan Cox to fill the seat being vacated by term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Democrats also retained their control of the legislature.
“Under Gov. Wes Moore, we would expect climate legislation to be supported by the administration and signed into law, which would be an affirmative statement about prioritizing climate action at a statewide level. So that would be a big difference,” said Kristen Harbeson, political director of Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
This is in contrast to Hogan, with whom there was always a threat of a veto on climate legislation, she said.
The new administration can empower state regulatory agencies by appointing leadership that prioritizes clean and affordable energy policies, said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, the Baltimore-based consumer advocacy group. It would send a clear message that it plans to hold polluters accountable, protect utilities’ consumers and chart transition to clean, renewable electricity throughout the state, she said.
But high prices for gasoline and home heating may make leaders cautious about taking steps, at least right away, that could disrupt energy markets, said Timothy Whitehouse, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“The reality check will be energy prices,” he said.
On his wish list is a change to a policy that says the incineration of wood and other biomass counts toward compliance with the state’s renewable energy standards. Such a change would be in line with growing concern about the environmental harm of burning biomass and skepticism about the environmental benefits.
Some state legislators and environmental advocates want to see the new administration make resources available to staff up regulatory agencies such as the Department of the Environment, which recently said it needed nearly 90 new employees to carry out necessary inspections and enforce pollution control measures as required under the law.
“It’s a big department and a big agency, with a lot of responsibility. And so they have to hire people and get clear on their mission,” said Senator Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, adding that the department needs a leadership committed to its mission.
Much like Maryland, the shift in Massachusetts was the election of a Democratic governor to go along with a legislature that Democrats already controlled.
Democrat Maura Healey easily won against Republican Geoff Diehl in the race to succeed Charlie Baker, a two-term Republican.
While there was a push for a climate plan by the legislature, Gov. Baker was an obstacle to the most ambitious policies, said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. For example, in a landmark climate and clean energy bill Baker signed into law last summer that includes measures on clean energy, energy efficiency and transportation emissions, he pushed back on proposals to allow some municipalities to ban fossil fuels in new buildings.
“That’s the kind of limitation that Governor Baker insisted on that we would expect Healey to be much more progressive on and willing to consider a broader probe to begin to wean the region off natural gas,” said Campbell.
He added that the new governor is the “element that had been missing.” Healey calls for a shift to carbon-free electricity by 2030 and, like all governors, will play a key role in implementing recent federal infrastructure and climate legislation.
The races in Massachusetts were not competitive. Other than the establishment of a new climate czar, there was a lack of specific climate commitments, said Campbell, “so we’re looking forward to really putting flesh on the bones of Governor-elect Healey’s climate commitments very early in her first term.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won a second term by defeating Republican Tudor Dixon.
In addition to re-electing Whitmer, voters gave Democrats majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time in decades. But these are narrow majorities. With votes still being counted, the party’s majority in the House could be as small as one seat, and the Senate could be evenly split, with the lieutenant governor, a Democrat, providing the tie-breaking vote.
“The Republican-led legislature has been at war with Gov. Whitmer on a variety of environmental issues,” said Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based advocacy group that is active throughout the Midwest.
“While not all Democrats agree on everything in Michigan, I think the new, very slim majority Democratic leadership in the state legislature will work more cooperatively with the Democratic governor,” he said.
But it remains to be seen if this is a majority that is capable of passing major legislation, considering that some Democrats may not agree on the best approach to dealing with climate change and encouraging a transition to clean energy.
The re-election of Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel means that the state is unlikely to change its approach in trying to force the closing of Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline. The pipeline runs through an environmentally sensitive area in the straits that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, won re-election against Republican Scott Jensen.
Democrats completed their trifecta by retaining control of the state House and gaining control of the state Senate. But their edge in the Senate may be as small as one seat, as results are still being tabulated.
Minnesota had come close to passing major climate and clean energy legislation even with Republicans in control of the Senate, and environmental advocates hope that this shift in power will provide enough of a nudge to finally pass a commitment to get to 100 percent carbon-free electricity.
“I think the important thing is we’re not starting from scratch here,” said Justin Fay, director of public affairs for Fresh Energy, a clean energy advocacy group in St. Paul. He listed examples of previous bills passed in the House and a policy framework released by the Walz administration.
“There actually is a thoughtful, robust and balanced menu of opportunities that are teed up and ready to go,” he said.
But there are several unknowns, including whether legislative Democrats will be united, or close to it, on climate and clean energy, and whether Republicans who were supportive of climate or clean energy policies in the past will still be so when their party no longer controls the agenda.
The Bigger Picture
Four years ago, Democrats had an even more successful Election Day in the states, gaining six trifectas.
The policies that followed in those states—Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Nevada and New York—helped to cement the idea that Democratic control was a key ingredient for climate and clean energy policy. Each state passed major legislation, either with far-reaching bills or piecemeal approaches to the issues.
For environmental advocates like Learner, this track record is a reason for optimism.
“I think there’s a really enormous opportunity,” he said.
The progress in Illinois the past few years was possible because Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 following several years of divided government, he said. Pritzker signed a landmark clean energy bill last year.
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Part of Learner’s optimism is that the Democratic governors in several of these trifectas are entering their second terms, which means they have experience and know what to do with the power they have been given.
The fact that advocates are even talking in terms of victories and optimism is notable because this was supposed to be a bad election for Democrats, as the president’s party often does poorly in midterm elections.
Learner said one of his takeaways was that Republicans didn’t run in opposition to climate and clean energy policies to the extent that they did in 2010, a year when Republicans did well at the federal and state level.
He thinks this is a sign that a growing share of voters in both parties are prioritizing action to address climate change.
Reporter Marianne Lavelle contributed to this story.