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6 wins and 2 losses on climate in the midterms

Climate action could be moving forward in Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota, and even Texas.

Democratic incumbent Governor Tony Evers celebrates during an election night event at The Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin.
Jim Vondruska/Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The red tsunami of Republican midterm voters that so many predicted at the federal level also didn’t quite pan out in state elections. State laws have big implications for climate change throughout the country, because even in a divided Congress, states can still ramp up their clean energy and climate goals.

The biggest setback of the night was in California, where voters rejected a proposal to raise taxes on multi-millionaires to fund electric vehicles for low-income people. Some races, like for Oregon governor and Arizona Corporation Commission, have yet to be called. Even so, the early results show 2023 to be a year of serious headway in states on climate change.

Here are the biggest policy outcomes for climate change based on the wins and losses Tuesday night. We’re going to be updating it as more races are called.

Minnesota and Michigan can pass long-awaited climate laws

Democrats appear to have gained control of state chambers and the governor’s seat in four new states — Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland, and Massachusetts. (As of writing, the AP hasn’t called the Minnesota state Senate race, but Dems are declaring victory.) The wins finally give those states an upper hand to push through new climate goals.

The biggest shift will be felt in Minnesota and Michigan. “Those are places where they’re ready to pass climate legislation,” according to Caroline Spears, executive director of the PAC Climate Cabinet Action, an organization that supports down-ballot candidates. Minnesota may be the next state to enact legislation to meet the state’s climate goals of boosting the 1 percent of electric vehicles to 20 percent by 2030, meet a zero-carbon new buildings target, and restore forests and wetlands. And Michigan, traditionally home of the US auto industry, could make new headway on clean cars.

Voters held off red supermajorities in three crucial states

Republicans fell just shy of gaining the supermajorities they hoped for in three state legislatures: Wisconsin, Montana, and North Carolina. Two of those states, Wisconsin and North Carolina, have Democratic governors who have issued climate executive orders. If Republicans had gained a veto-proof majority in those states, they were likely to reverse Democratic climate policies, and possibly go further. In North Carolina, for example, the state legislature has attempted to pass preemption laws blocking climate action in its cities. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the preemption bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature.

In Montana, the GOP also was just two seats away from gaining a supermajority. The state has a Republican governor, but the results still mattered, in part, because there is a right to environmental protections enshrined in the state constitution. “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” The language means the state legislature has to play a role in protecting the environment for everyone, as an inalienable right. The supermajority would have met the state’s threshold to propose amendments to change that.

Billions of dollars more for climate infrastructure in New York

New York overwhelmingly passed $4.2 billion in state-issued bonds that will go to climate change. It breaks down as $1.5 billion for pollution cleanup, wetland protection, clean energy projects, and electric school bus fleets, with another $1 billion in coastal shoreline restoration, and the rest split between sewage infrastructure and land and fishery conservation.

A climate win in red Texas

Democrats have failed to gain a foothold in statewide Texas races for years, but further down the ballot, they’ve made more headway. Throughout the campaign, the race for Harris County Judge — a position that acts like the CEO of the area — was a nail-biter between incumbent Democrat Lina Hidalgo and Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer. On Wednesday morning, Mealer conceded her loss to Hidalgo.

Harris County encompasses Houston, and is home to sprawling oil and petrochemical industrial operations. Hidalgo’s first term as county judge saw her emphasize environmental priorities — including incorporating climate flood maps into city planning and hiring environmental prosecutors. Hidalgo’s expansion of the county’s pollution budget and air monitors has earned her a strong reputation among climate advocates. Mealer, for her part, had told the Houston Chronicle that climate change wouldn’t be her priority.

Michigan’s fight to shut down Line 5 will continue

Democrats had a big night in Michigan, making it more likely that Enbridge Line 5, a 1950s-era liquid gas and crude oil pipeline that transports 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids through Wisconsin and Michigan, will eventually shut down. Both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, two incumbents who fended off GOP challengers, want to see the line closed, and have an ongoing lawsuit against the company to close the pipeline over its potential to wreak havoc on natural areas and tribal lands. Nessel’s opponent for AG, Matthew DePerno, also a 2020 election denier, had promised to drop the state’s lawsuits if elected, allowing the pipeline to continue indefinitely.

Oregon appears likely to stay the course on climate goals

Democrat Tina Kotek is the likely winner for the governor’s seat (though the AP has not made a call on the race). She had an especially tough challenge from Republican Christine Drazan. A reason the race was so close was the presence of Betsy Johnson as the third candidate in the race, who won almost 9 percent of the vote. Nike co-founder Phil Knight funneled millions to both Johnson’s and Drazan’s campaigns to see Kotek defeated.

The election is huge for climate policy, because so much of the state’s goals depend on who’s controlling the governor’s office. Oregon has a Climate Action Plan on the books that pledges 45 percent greenhouse gas cuts by 2035. Sitting Governor Kate Brown issued the executive order in 2020 to make up for the state’s repeat legislative failures to pass a climate law. If Drazan won, the state would see many of its climate initiatives stalled or reversed. Kotek’s likely win doesn’t just keep the status quo for Oregon, but gives the blue state trifecta another shot at passing a law targeting electricity and transportation pollution, and advancing forest conservation.

California voters reject a tax on the ultra-wealthy to fund EVs

There were only two climate-focused statewide ballot initiatives this cycle. The one in New York passed, but a second in California lost by a wide margin. California’s Proposition 30, funded largely by Lyft, “would have raised taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents to accelerate the sales of electric cars, particularly for low-income residents,” Vox’s Umair Irfan wrote. Prop 30 would have worked by raising taxes on incomes over $2 million, raising billions in new funds for climate efforts. Irfan wrote: “Prop 30 was one of the most overtly redistributive climate policies ever put to a vote, and initially, it was popular. Polls over the summer showed two-thirds of Californians were in favor. But business groups along with California Gov. Gavin Newsom aggressively opposed Prop 30, tilting the scale against it.”

Kansas and Arizona elect anti-climate state treasurers, setting up a battle over ESG investing

Two more states may soon fall in line with other Republican treasurers that have moved to pull any state investments in companies they claim boycott fossil fuels. The fight is a partisan backlash to the growth in ESG investing — the name for an environmentally and socially conscious approach to the board room.

In Arizona, incumbent Kimberly Yee (R) looks likely to be reelected for another term, though the race has not been called. Yee has already said that corporate standards prioritizing climate change and the environment are “inappropriate for the investment room.” She hasn’t pulled state funds from these companies yet, but that may be a priority for her next term.

Kansas also elected a new state treasurer, Steven Johnson (R), who made “eliminating woke ESG investment strategies” a key part of his campaign. Kansas could be the next state to join Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and West Virginia in punishing the investment company BlackRock over its climate commitments.

Update, November 10, 11:10 am: This story was originally published on November 9 and has been updated to include the likely outcome in Oregon, as well as California’s Proposition 30 and state treasurer races in Arizona and Kansas.