‘Dead, flat wrong’: GOP climate attacks fail to stop Democratic wins

By Adam Aton, Benjamin Storrow | 11/09/2023 06:21 AM EST

Even on friendly terrain, Republicans struggled to offset the “Dobbs effect” and change the subject from abortion rights.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) speaks to supporters Tuesday night after he was elected to a second term.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) speaks to supporters Tuesday night after he was elected to a second term. Timothy D. Easley/AP

Some Republicans went into this week’s elections with a tactic to counter Democrats’ decisive advantage on abortion: hammer climate action.

In New Jersey, GOP candidates escalated attacks against offshore wind. Virginia Republicans argued against the state’s electric vehicle mandates. And Kentucky’s GOP ticket accused the Democratic governor of bowing to “radical environmentalists who want to kill coal.”

None of it worked. Democrats won victory after victory in Tuesday’s major state elections, continuing the party’s overperformance since the Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade. Even on friendly terrain, Republicans failed to offset the Dobbs effect by attacking climate policy.


“Republicans and their Big Oil allies tried to change the subject from abortion, in particular. And they thought they could do it in the context of clean energy,” said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters.

“They were wrong,” he said. “They were dead, flat wrong.”

Virginia Democrats, once nervous about protecting their last bastion of power in the state Senate, instead recaptured the lower chamber just two years after losing it. That result ensures Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to repeal the state’s climate laws remain dead on arrival.

Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won a second term leading his coal state after promoting electric vehicle manufacturing, even as he avoided talking about climate and signed some Republican bills to boost fossil fuels. That playbook made it difficult for the Republican candidate, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, to land attacks on Beshear’s climate record.

After winning by a larger margin than his first election, Beshear on Tuesday used his victory speech to highlight his work attracting “the two biggest battery plants on planet Earth” as a “historic win streak.”

Republicans did notch a victory in Mississippi, where GOP Gov. Tate Reeves won reelection after attacking his Democratic opponent, longtime utility regulator Brandon Presley, for supporting solar energy and accepting contributions from renewable energy companies. But Republicans were always heavily favored to keep control of the deep-red state.

Perhaps nowhere demonstrated the resilience of Democrats’ climate agenda like New Jersey.

Opposition to offshore wind has mounted in shore communities over the last year amid concerns over aesthetics and their impact on marine wildlife. Even Democrats were preparing for the worst after Ørsted, a Danish wind developer, abruptly canceled two projects the week before the election.

But Democrats actually picked up state House seats — even in southern New Jersey, where offshore wind projects have sparked the most local opposition.

In Monmouth County, Republicans pressed the unsubstantiated claim that sonar used by offshore wind developers was killing whales. Republican Steve Dnistrian made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign for a state Senate seat. And the Republican State Leadership Committee launched two “five-figure” ad buys seeking to amplify the issue against Democratic state Sen. Vin Gopal.

Gopal prevailed by 21 percentage points.

Further south, Democrat John Burzichelli defeated Republican state Sen. Ed Durr. His win flipped a seat blue that Republicans had won during the last election in a stunning upset, when Durr unseated then-Senate President Steve Sweeney, a prominent offshore wind supporter.

Abortion figured prominently in Burzichelli’s winning campaign. But the former Democratic assemblymember also has a long history as a supporter of offshore wind, said Mark Magyar, director of the Sweeney Center for Public Policy at Rowan University. Durr, by contrast, had been an outspoken offshore wind opponent.

“I think it all plays into the fact that Burzichelli won,” Magyar said.

The results don’t mean offshore wind is entirely out of the political woods in New Jersey. Gopal’s victory came after he distanced himself from the industry. And polling shows that offshore wind has lost Republican support amid a GOP-led misinformation campaign that spread falsehoods about whale deaths and wind turbines.

Still, the issue didn’t prove to be the anchor that some Democrats feared. If anything, it has progressives feeling emboldened.

“I think offshore wind was a little bit on the ballot yesterday,” said state Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat who chairs the New Jersey Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee.

“Republicans used it as one of their major talking points, and Republicans had a bad day,” he said, adding that he was “amazed” at how Republican campaigns latched on to offshore wind. “I think they thought they were getting traction.”

Taken as a whole, progressives see the election results as a double victory: Republican climate attacks weren’t enough to shift voter attention away from abortion. But even in races where climate policy did break through — like in New Jersey — Democrats still won convincing victories.

One reason for that is that Democrats have built up a real climate record, said Victoria Higgins, Virginia director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

“The difference now is that we have a lot to defend,” she said.

Minho Kim contributed to this report.