Why climate-friendly Democrats won at the state level

By Benjamin Storrow | 11/10/2022 07:00 AM EST

Democrats held a half-dozen competitive governorships, won two others and wrestled legislative control away from Republicans in Michigan and Minnesota during the midterms. Those victories came three months after federal Democrats passed the biggest climate bill in U.S. history.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pictured speaking on election night in Detroit.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pictured speaking on election night in Detroit. AP

The last time congressional Democrats tried their hand at major climate policy, it ended in defeat — not just for them but also for state-level allies.

Tuesday’s midterm elections flipped the script.

In the aftermath of passing the biggest climate bill in U.S. history, Democrats this year held a half-dozen competitive governorships, won two others and wrestled legislative control away from Republicans in Michigan and Minnesota.


The result marked a stark contrast to 2010, when GOP attacks on Democratic climate plans — including a failed federal cap-and-trade bill — helped Republicans win 11 gubernatorial races.

Some analysts expected similar results this year. State-level Democrats in recent years have set increasingly ambitious climate targets, and congressional Democrats this summer topped off those efforts by passing into law $369 billion in clean energy tax credits. Those moves — coupled with a steep rise in energy costs — led to speculation that 2022 would echo the Republican landslide of 2010.

Instead, Democrats turned the results on their head. Where Democrats lost governorships in Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin in 2010, they emerged triumphant this week. They scored legislative victories in Minnesota and Michigan, held onto the governorship in ruby-red Kansas and won back the corner offices in deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts.

Pam Kiely, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the membership of the U.S. Climate Alliance won’t change much after Tuesday. Of the 24 participating states that have committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, only Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) was losing Wednesday. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, was narrowly leading in Oregon, another alliance member.

“The main thing we can take away from the gubernatorial results is that strong commitments on climate and taking steps forward on climate action like in Pennsylvania are electoral benefits for constituents right now,” Kiely said.

Observers said the Democratic victories were due to a range of factors, including several weak Republican candidates and outrage at the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they also reflected a shift in the Democrats’ approach to climate policy.

Cap and trade was the Democrats’ gold standard for cutting emissions a decade ago. But the approach was savaged by Republicans, who said it would drive up energy costs and kill jobs. The argument helped sink the 2010 federal cap-and-trade bill and a handful of Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls that year.

Twelve years ago in the Midwest, Republicans won governorships in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — spelling the end for a proposed regional cap-and-trade program. Susana Martinez’s 2010 victory in New Mexico stymied the expansion of California’s cap-and-trade system (Climatewire, Nov. 3, 2010). And in Maine, Paul LePage won the governor’s mansion while railing against the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program for power plants in the Northeast (Climatewire, Nov. 1, 2011).

The losses prompted the beginning of a shift among climate advocates. Out were policies that imposed penalties on emitters. In were policies that drove investments in clean energy policies.

The idea was to marry emission reduction with economic development — promoting the job potential of clean energy industries alongside their environmental attributes.

The shift was gradual at first but caught steam following a wave of Democratic gubernatorial and legislative victories in the 2018 midterms. Washington state, New Mexico, New York and Nevada all passed plans the following year to massively increase the amount of renewable electricity in their state and drastically slash greenhouse gas emissions (Climatewire, June 19).

The wave culminated with passage of the Inflation Reduction Act this year, which expanded federal tax credits to everything from electric vehicles to hydrogen to clean energy manufacturing.

“The broader theory is that tangible, concrete benefits of the law that will show up in people’s lives in the next few years also have real potential to reshape political coalitions as well, with substantive effects on electoral and policy outcomes,” Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton University professor who has championed the shift, wrote on Twitter.

Time will tell if the theory is ultimately borne out, but the shift in strategy already has borne fruit for Democrats, he said.

“Whether or not voters *rewarded* Ds for passing IRA or not, there’s clearly no evidence they were *punished* for it, as they almost certainly would have been if they’d managed to pass a carbon pricing centered climate policy,” Jenkins wrote. “That itself is validation of the theory.”

Climate advocates have not completely abandoned cap and trade. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) pressed forward with a plan to join RGGI over the objections of Republican lawmakers. That effort is currently tied up in court, and it’s unclear if it will be picked up by Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general who bested Republican Doug Mastriano on Tuesday in their race for Wolf’s job.

Shapiro had been tight-lipped about RGGI throughout the campaign, saying he would evaluate the plan upon taking office. The governor-elect likely will want to broker talks on the issue between environmentalists and organized labor, said Mark Szybist, a senior attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program.

“There is a lot happening in the courts, and I would be surprised if the Shapiro administration did anything policywise on RGGI before it is concluded in the courts,” Szybist said.

In the Midwest, Democratic gubernatorial wins in 2018 were tempered by Republican legislative holds. But Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tim Walz of Minnesota will return to their respective capitals next year with Democratic majorities after scoring victories in their races Tuesday. That will give the pair more leeway to pursue climate action that was not possible in their first term.

Their victories coincided with wins for Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both Democrats. The Midwest should benefit from the continuity of leadership said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“They know each other; their staffs know each other,” Learner said. “This is a real opportunity for the Midwest governors to be working together not just on climate, but Great Lakes protection and [electric vehicle] charging systems that work across the interstate highway system.”

Of course, the results from Tuesday night weren’t all good for Democrats and their climate ambitions. Republicans won gubernatorial elections in several big states, including Texas, Florida, Ohio and Georgia.

But perhaps no race underscored the differences between 2010 and 2022 than Maine. Twelve years ago, LePage won the first of two terms as Maine governor, during which he fought net metering for residential solar projects and questioned climate science. After leaving office in 2018, LePage was replaced by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who quickly set about raising the state’s renewable electricity and emission reduction targets.

Tuesday saw the pair square off, with issues such as the cost of heating oil and electricity among those separating the candidates. Mills prevailed 55 percent to 43 percent to earn another four years in Augusta.

“I think the contrast couldn’t have been clearer, between my record and my predecessor’s record,” she told Maine Public Radio on Wednesday. “We need to continue to diversify our energy sources, help Maine people wean off of fossil fuels, particularly heating oil. And make sure that we have alternative energy sources, and alternative heating sources in particular.”