Democrats won a clean energy victory in midterm elections

Though the 2018 U.S. Midterm elections didn’t produce a clear victory for the climate, it was far from a defeat. While three of four far-reaching state ballot initiatives didn’t pass, the Democrats will take over leadership of the House of Representatives and several energy progressive candidates also won key governor’s races, L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a closer look.

By taking the House, which has previously been at least as right leaning and anti-environmental as President Trump himself, Democrats now largely have control over the creation of future legislature.

A true sign of hope for the climate comes from the victory of many progressive state legislators and gubernatorial candidates ( Photo by Rob Bulmahn, CC BY 2.0)

By taking the House, which has previously been at least as right leaning and anti-environmental as President Trump himself, Democrats now largely have control over the creation of future legislature. All new bills must originate and be passed by the House before moving into the Senate and ultimately, a Presidential signature.

Going forward, Democrats can hold hearings and launch new efforts to address climate change and energy-related issues, placing the environment front and center before voters ahead of the 2020 Presidential campaign.

More representative of America, over 100 women will also have seats in the new House. Also, reflective of Bernie Sanders’ continuing Socialist Democratic revolt, it’s set to become younger, more ethnically diverse, and potentially more liberal. And seven of the incoming Democrats are also scientists.

However the nation remains deeply enmeshed in an on-going crisis of democracy largely fueled by the Republican’s fight to maintain minority rule at all costs. They recognize that despite his victory, Trump received less votes than Clinton. Indeed the Republicans have actually lost five of the last six Presidential elections in terms of popular votes going back to 2000’s tainted victory for George W. Bush. And this year, despite winning over 40.5 million votes for Democratic Senatorial candidates (55.4%) compared to only 31.5 million (43%) for Republicans, the Senate is now poised to become even more deeply Republican.

As-of-press-time, charges of voter suppression, counter-charges of voter fraud and the still undecided Senate and governor’s races in Florida and Georgia, highlight the nation’s growing distrust with the system itself.

Indeed, largely out of this frustration with Washington, many environmental advocates also aimed their efforts at shaping state and local governments through four progressive energy and climate centered ballot initiatives. Sadly, all but one failed to pass.

In Arizona, voters said no to accelerating the shift to renewable energy to 50% by 2030. In Colorado, voters said no to an effort to sharply limit fracking on non-federal land. And a measure to make Washington the first state to tax carbon emissions also fell short. However, in Nevada voters passed a measure very similar to the one rejected in Arizona. But because of bizarre state regulations, before the measure can become law, it has to survive a second popular vote in 2020.

Indicative of the roll of money in U.S. politics, in proportion to each ballot initiative’s popularity, Big Oil & Co flooded the races with advertising, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the multiple campaigns. The industry-backed group, Protect Colorado, threw roughly $38 million into opposition spending against Proposition 112, an initiative that would have required new statewide measures preventing fracking wells being dug within 2,500 feet of all occupied buildings, hospitals, schools and “vulnerable areas” such as parks and irrigation canals–up from the current 250-400 feet.

Key to empowering local governments up and down the expanding populations around Denver, exactly where frackers are moving, 112’s backers hoped to keep drilling out of people’s backyards. On the other side, largely funded by Anadarko Petroleum and Exxon-Mobile, Protect Colorado filled the corporate media airwaves with messages that 112 would “wipe out thousands of jobs and devastate Colorado’s economy for years to come.”

By contrast, the main group backing the proposal, Colorado Rising for Health and Safety, raised about $1 million, relying on grassroots efforts and social media. While only winning 44% across the state, the major population centers in Denver, Boulder, and Broomfield Counties, as well as in many of the pricey skiing and scenic mountain areas around Aspen, Telluride and Steamboat Springs voted, often by over 70%, for it.

In Arizona, at least $54 million was spent fighting over its energy direction. The state’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, or APS, poured more than $30 million into an industry-sponsored political action committee called Arizonans for Affordable Electricity. They in turn spread mailers and messaging warning that generating 50% of the desert state’s energy from the sun would cost households an additional $1,000 in bills per year. They were opposed by an umbrella activist group called Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. While supported by many grassroots organizations, the group got a huge assist from California billionaire investor and political activist, Tom Steyer, who donated the biggest chunk of the nearly $25 million raised.

Meanwhile, Washington ended up setting a state spending record over citizen’s attempts to put a fee on carbon pollution. The Clean Air, Clean Energy coalition, with help from Google’s Bill Gates and other billionaires raised more than $15 million. Meanwhile, oil companies belonging to the Western States Petroleum Association pumped over $31 million into activities and actions opposing the measure.

But a true sign of hope for the climate comes from the victory of many progressive state legislators and gubernatorial candidates. Throughout the 2018 campaign, many Democrats won on platforms of reshaping their respective states’ energy portfolios by mid-century. Jared Polis, Colorado’s new governor-elect vowed to put Colorado on a plan to be 100% renewable powered by 2040. Both Nevada’s new governor, boosted with support from Tesla’s Elon Musk and other clean energy investors and Michelle Lujan Grisham, the new governor of New Mexico, have backed sourcing 50% of their state’s electricity from renewables by 2030. Democrat and billionaire JB Pritzker, who won the governor’s race in Illinois, also vowed to harness the Midwestern state’s rich wind and solar resources and put the state on track to use 100% “clean energy” by 2050.



L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

1 Comment

  1. I’d like to see some statistical analysis, but anecdotally, this was the year that Democrats stopped running away from climate change. Not all the candidates highlighted climate and energy, but those that did did not seem to suffer a penalty. The new House Democratic caucus will include more hardcore activists like AOC. She has already kicked up a successful fuss over her Green New Deal, securing important concessions from Nancy Pelosi (if indeed they were concessions, and not an open door swinging wider).

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