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Politics

8 Down-Ballot Races That Could Shape America’s Climate Future

Your guide to the important races from Alaska to Arizona and everywhere in between.

Voting with a leaf.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In 2015, just one state had a goal of reaching 100% clean energy; today, over half the American population lives in states that do. That progress is thanks in large part to voters, who’ve prioritized electing candidates that support renewable energy, electric vehicles, climate justice, and other green policies.

And who’s making those policies? The people at the bottom of the ticket — candidates for the kind of local and state-level offices that do most of the nitty-gritty climate policymaking in this country. Here is a representative, albeit far from exhaustive, list of eight I’ll be keeping my eye on this year.

Anchorage, Alaska’s mayoral race

Who’s running: There are 10 candidates in Anchorage’s nonpartisan mayoral election, but the ones you need to know are Republican incumbent Mayor David Bronson; Democratic Party-endorsed Suzanne LaFrance, who helped pass the city’s Climate Action Plan while in the State Assembly; former state legislator and Democratic Party-endorsed Chris Tuck; and the Republican Party-endorsed former president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation Bill Popp.

State of the race: Bronson led with 35% of the vote in polls a month out from election day on April 2, but that wouldn’t put him over the 45% hump he needs to win without a runoff. LaFrance holds around 25% of the potential vote, and experts say she’d likely beat Bronson if it goes to a runoff.

Why it matters: Southcentral Alaska, home to half the state’s population, gets most of its energy from wells owned by Hilcorp in Cook Inlet. Hilcorp, however, has warned that it won’t commit to signing new contracts, which begin to expire next year, due to natural gas shortages. Mayors in the region, including Anchorage’s Bronson, recently formed a coalition to address the looming energy crisis, with solutions ranging from importing liquified natural gas from out of state, abroad, or Alaska’s North Slope 800 miles away; to new drilling (Bronson’s proposal); to finding an “alternative” source of energy (LaFrance’s stance). Whatever way you cut it, though, the next mayor of Anchorage is likely to have an outsized role in determining the state’s energy future, with organizations like The Alaska Center, which advocates for renewable energy, and Lead Locally, which champions climate leaders, rallying behind LaFrance.

Arizona’s Senate seat

Who’s running: Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego and “MAGA darling” Kari Lake are fighting for outgoing Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s seat.

State of the race: It’s a true toss-up, although early polls show Gallego with the edge.

Why it matters: Sinema’s replacement could determine which party controls the Senate once the dust settles on November 5. In one corner is Lake, who has blamed heat-related deaths in the state on meth and, while “not opposed to some of the green energy,” has said she’d block renewable mandates. Gallego, by contrast, is endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund in part for having paid special attention to public lands and waters and clean energy jobs while in Congress. He also co-sponsored the CHIPS and Science Act.

Arizona’s Salt River Project Board of Directors

What it is: The Salt River Project is the biggest public power company in the country by generation, serving the Phoenix metropolitan area. Its board and council are chosen through a confusing and dubiously democratic “acreage-based voting system” on the first Tuesday in April in even-numbered years.

State of the race: A coalition of 14 clean energy candidates is attempting to flip the SRP board and council to make it more solar-friendly. However, only half of SRP’s customers are eligible to cast a vote — renters, for example, are not allowed — and less than 1% of those who are eligible actually do.

Why it matters: Currently, less than 4% of SRP’s energy comes from solar, compared to almost 10% for other local utilities. Incumbents on the council and board — some of whom have had SRP seats in their families for more than a century — have voted to keep using coal and penalized rooftop solar, with six-time elected official Stephen Williams telling the local NBC affiliate that the “sun doesn’t shine at night” — which, while true, does not typically prohibit solar energy from being generated during the daytime. In addition to pushing for more solar, the Clean Energy candidates also want to protect the local watershed, an issue likely to become increasingly critical in the heat-baked state.

The California Oil and Gas Well Regulations Referendum

What it is: A vote on whether or not to overturn Senate Bill 1137, which prohibits new oil and gas wells from being built within a half-mile of homes, schools, nursing homes, jails, and hospitals, and requires additional safety measures like leak detection.

State of the race: Big-money campaigns have killed progressive bills in California before, and the oil industry is poised to dump a lot more money into defeating the regulations. The campaign to overturn Senate Bill 1137 has already spent $20 million, while California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom and Jane Fonda have rallied to support the bill.

Why it matters: The California referendum is set to be one of a handful of cases of voters deciding directly on legislation related to oil, gas, and emissions this November. Oil interests are already tailoring their arguments to sway California’s liberal constituency, arguing that the law’s limits are arbitrary and that it will be worse for the environment in the long run by forcing the state to import oil from places with less stringent regulations. Proponents of the bill, however, say it is a cut-and-dry case of environmental justice, given that many of the more than 2 million Californians who live within a mile of an oil or gas well in the state are people of color. That hasn’t stopped oil interests from undertaking some confusing shenanigans, even as some experts say gas interests just want the referendum to cause a delay “until they figure out what they’re going to do next.”

Michigan’s 7th Congressional District

Who’s running: Former Democratic State Senator Curtis Hertel Jr., who is endorsed by the LCV, is running against former Republican State Senator Tom Barrett.

State of the race: The Cook Political Reporthas called Michigan’s 7th district, representing Lansing and the surrounding area, “the most competitive open seat in the country.”

Why it matters: “Climate won the Michigan midterms,” the Sierra Club wrote in 2022 after voters elected a “pro-environment majority” to the state legislature. Having control of both chambers allowed Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to make speedy and impressive progress on the energy transition locally, while at the national level, Democrats took seven of the state’s 13 House seats. The advantages are slim, though, and going into November, Congressional Democrats face threats in MI-03, MI-08, and most notably, MI-07, which Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin has vacated to run for Senate. Notably, Democrats need to win five more House districts nationally to regain control of the chamber, which means every close district race is essential. It’s important locally, too; the race for Slotkin’s open seat is among the most competitive in the country, and green groups have hit Barrett for his poor environmental voting record and opposition to clean energy jobs.

Montana’s Senate seat

Who’s running: Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester will face the winner of the Republican primary — likely former Montana Secretary of State and Public Service Commission Chair Brad Johnson, a Libertarian, or ex-Navy SEAL and entrepreneur Tim Sheehy, who was endorsed by Trump as an “American hero.”

State of the race:It’ll be a nail-biter. Tester “will likely have to convince one out of every six Trump voters to cross over for him” on a split ballot in November, RealClearPoliticsnotes. Still, polls show the Democrat with an early edge in potential Republican match-ups.

Why it matters: Unlike Arizona, which has turned purple in the last two elections, Montana is still a solidly conservative state, which Trump won by more than 16 points in 2020. At the same time, Montana is becoming a “must-watch climate battleground,” balanced between its cheap and ample supply of coal and its deep-rooted pride in its natural landscape. But while Tester’s environmental record isn’t perfect, the opposition looks much worse: Johnson has scaremongered about the reliability of renewable energy and EVs stressing the grid, while Sheehy quietly deleted references to sustainability and climate change from the website for his aerial firefighting company, seemingly to boost his credibility with MAGA voters.

North Carolina’s gubernatorial race

Who’s running: North Carolina’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein will face the state’s Republican Lieutenant Governor, Mark K. Robinson.

State of the race: Either a toss-up or a slight lean Democratic, depending on who you ask. Early polls show Stein and Robinson neck and neck.

Why it matters: When I spoke to LCV’s senior vice president of campaigns, Pete Maysmith, he cited the North Carolina race as one of the advocacy group’s top 2024 priorities. Term-limited outgoing Democratic Governor Roy Cooper had long been an ally of green policymakers, setting strong EV goals for the state and making a (thwarted) push for offshore wind. Stein has vowed to keep up his predecessor’s work. Robinson, on the other hand, is one of the most flagrant deniers of climate change on any 2024 ballot: He’s called climate research “junk science” and misleadingly alleged there are “more polar bears on Earth now than ever.” Electing Stein wouldn’t just keep a climate denier out of office; with Cooper’s seat, Republicans could seize a trifecta in the state if, as expected, they keep control of the House and Senate. With no remaining opposition, they could start rolling back more of Cooper’s work.

Washington State’s gubernatorial race

Who’s running: There are currently 13 candidates in the nonpartisan primary for outgoing Governor Jay Inslee’s seat, but leading the polls are Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat endorsed by Inslee; moderate Democratic State Senator Mark Mullet; former moderate Republican Representative Dave Reichert; and former Richland school board member Semi Bird, the first Black Republican to run for governor in the state.

State of the race: Likely Democrat; the state last elected a Republican governor in 1985. Still, a November poll that pitted Ferguson against Reichert showed the Republican with a 2-point lead over his opponent.

Why it matters: Inslee’s apparent departure from politics will leave a gaping hole not just in the state’s climate leadership but also in the nation’s — as governor, Inslee made Washington an example for other states with its aggressive clean energy goals, phase-out of new gas-powered cars and trucks, heat pump requirement for new buildings, and local Climate Corps. That progressive trajectory is under threat from Republicans, who’ve successfully gathered signatures for potential initiatives that would chip away at “radical” policies like the state’s cap-and-invest program — a repeal of which both Reichert and Bird support. But Washington’s governor race could be consequential even if a Democrat wins. While Ferguson has called “climate change” a top priority and under Inslee opposed building a methane gas pipeline through the state, Mullet has taken a somewhat more moderate stance, expressing concerns about gas “affordability” for families.

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. Read More

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