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Politics

6 Primary Results That Could Have Big Implications for the Climate Movement

June 4 was a busy day for democracy.

A VOTE button.
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Democracy is having a big year — heck, it’s having a big month. More people will vote in 2024 than in any other year in human history, and many of those elections are happening right now: In just the past four days, Mexicans elected a climate scientist to the presidency; Indians braved extreme heat to reelect Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and Donald Trump’s pal Nigel Farage announced his return to the scrum of British politics in the hopes of holding off an historic win by the Labour Party on July 4.

Americans still have another few months of suspense before their own general election, but voting is well underway stateside, too. In Tuesday’s primaries, voters cast ballots for local offices in Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota — including in several races with significant implications for the climate.

While the results were a mixed bag, they also speak to the fact that climate change is increasingly unignorable by politicians, and it signals where campaigners and activists should focus their attention as the November election approaches. Here are six of the major takeaways:

Republican climate leaders can (probably?) win elections …

What happened: Mariannette Miller-Meeks won the First District Republican primary in Iowa

Why it matters: Miller-Meeks is the head of the House’s Conservative Climate Caucus and has championed wind, solar, and nuclear energy; her opponent, David Pautsch, attacked her for not being conservative enough on issues like abortion, the national debt, and her support of tax credits for carbon pipelines. Though Miller-Meeks’ history isn’t likely to impress too many climate activists — she’s been particularly sympathetic to the liquified natural gas industry, claiming, “If you want a cleaner, healthier planet, the best thing you could do is to export American oil and gas” — her victory over Pautsch in deep-red Iowa proves that being associated with the word “climate” isn’t an automatic black mark against a Republican in 2024. Still, it wasn’t a comfortable victory: Early Tuesday evening, the returns had looked pretty worrying for Miller-Meeks, and the slim margin in some areas suggested the risk of breaking with the party line.

… but that doesn’t mean they’ve broken the climate curse

What happened: Democratic voters in New Jersey weren’t convinced by Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who lost the Eighth Congressional District primary to Rep. Rob Menendez, Jr.

Why it matters: Of all the candidates who ran in contested primaries on Tuesday, none seemed to position themselves more overtly as a climate candidate than Bhalla. As mayor of Hoboken, Bhalla created a Department of Climate Action & Innovation in part to adapt to a future of extreme flooding in the city, has sued Exxon Mobil for climate-related damages, and centered climate as a campaign priority, earning endorsements from environmental groups like the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and Food & Water Action. While many different factors go into winning — and losing — a campaign (especially in a state like New Jersey), one lesson of the night is that “climate,” at least in so many words, might not be the selling point that progressives sometimes think it is. Case in point: Bhalla’s campaign page on climate framed electrification as a means of reducing the state’s “carbon footprint”; Menendez’s focused mainly on the economy and jobs.

Montana gets a front-row seat to the climate culture war

What happened: Tim Sheehy won the Republican Senate primary, setting him up to take on Democrat Jon Tester in one of the most nail-biting races of November

Why it matters: Retired Navy SEAL and aerial firefighter Tim Sheehy overcame a scandal involving a lie about his gunshot wound to take on Tester in a race that could decide the balance of the U.S. Senate — and, by extension, Biden’s climate agenda — in five months’ time. A Trump endorsee, Sheehy is not afraid of a good old-fashioned culture war, as evidenced by Bridger Aerospace, his aerial firefighting company, quietly removing references to environmental, social, and governance issues from its website after Sheehy entered the race. Any mention of climate change? That was gone, too. But Sheehy’s rhetoric during his primary campaign also reeked of the green boogeyman, with the candidate repeatedly using the term “climate cult” to dismiss Tester, Biden, and other perceived enemies. Though Tester, a working farmer, has championed climate-related causes in a way that has resonated even with many Republicans, Sheehy hasn’t yet appeared interested in debating the finer points of things like federal subsidies for going electric. Expect the attacks to get more colorful in the coming months; polls show Sheehy and Tester neck-and-neck.

The left really needs to start winning utility board elections

What happened: Voters in Montana winnowed downa crowded field of six Republican utility board candidates to three finalists

Why it matters: Utility boards are some of the most influential elected bodies that almost nobody pays attention to, and Republicans in red and red-leaning states like Arizona and Alaska tend to hold the edge even in bluer urban areas. In Montana, the Public Service Commission decides the energy mix of the region in and around Billings, Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, and Butte, and has been in Republican hands for two decades. That explains the high level of Republican interest in the primary races on Tuesday, where five candidates played musical chairs for two available seats. The apparent winners — Brad Molnar in District 2 and Jeff Welborn in District 3 (in addition to incumbent commissioner Jennifer Fielder, who ran unopposed) — have hit-and-miss records when it comes to renewable energy. Molnar, who was reelected to the seat he held from 2005 to 2012, told the Montana Free Press he’s concerned about the “xenophobia” of conservatives in his state and has been known to break from party lines in his votes, in addition to voicing some belief in climate change (though he doesn’t say we can do anything about it). Welborn, meanwhile, described himself to the Free Press as a “free market guy” interested in preventing rate hikes with an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy that includes new nuclear plants and hydrogen, though he’s previously sided with the local utility over Montana’s consumer advocate. In November, Welborn will face Leonard “Lenny” Williams, the uncontested Democrat in the race, who’s called the gerrymandered utility board districts a “racket.”

‘Climate’ might be a dirty word, but ‘environmental justice’ doesn’t have to be

What happened: Angel Charley easily won the New Mexico Democratic primary in Senate District 30, to the west of Albuquerque, on an environmental justice platform

Why it matters: With around 63% of the vote as of Wednesday morning, first-time candidate Angel Charley appeared to be the clear winner in her race against former state Senator Clemente Sanchez. Charley, the former director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, convinced voters in the recently redrawn district that climate goals aren’t different from popular policies like protecting vulnerable women living near extractive industries in their area, and can be pursued with projects like community solar development. As the experts I’ve spoken with have told me, sometimes the best way to move emissions-abating policies forward is by focusing on what climate activists might view more as positive externalities, but are more immediate to the communities in question. Charley’s victory on environmental justice grounds seems like further proof of concept. A Native American activist, Charley’s campaign focused largely on “lessening dependence on oil and gas and extractive industries, because there’s a correlation with violence against Native women when extractive industries are present.” Meanwhile, Sanchez’s campaign was heavily financed by corporate interests, including donations from an oil company, an auto dealer trade group, lobbyists, and utilities.

There’s one pipeline South Dakotans can’t get behind

What happened: 17 out of 19 Republican and Democratic sponsors of a recent bill attempting to block a CO2 pipeline in the state who were up for reelection won their primaries

Why it matters:Located between the shale oil fields of North Dakota and the storage terminals of Texas, South Dakota is no stranger to pipeline proposals. Plans for a new pipeline that would funnel carbon dioxide produced by the local ethanol industry to North Dakota to be stored underground, however, have become a contentious wedge issue in the state and appeared to be behind some of the primary results on Tuesday night. Of the more than a dozen sponsors of a recent failed bill that would have prohibited the use of eminent domain for the construction of pipelines carrying carbon oxide, all but two who ran appeared to have been reelected as of Wednesday morning; some of the state’s losing incumbents, on the other hand, were behind a compromise bill that attempted to split the difference between protecting landowners and allowing the pipeline project to proceed. The slim margins in some races — The South Dakota Searchlight points to Mykala Voita, a landowner rights candidate who beat incumbent Republican Sen. Erin Tobin by 48 votes, within the margin to trigger a recount — speak to the deep divides and disagreements in the state. That also goes for divisions within the major parties about the use of eminent domain and suspicions about the technology of carbon capture and storage more largely.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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