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Va. Democrats win big, denying GOP chance to undo climate policies

By Scott Waldman, Minho Kim | 11/08/2023 06:30 AM EST

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks with reporters last year after touring a Loudoun County elections facility in Leesburg, Va.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks with reporters last year after touring a Loudoun County elections facility in Leesburg, Va. Cliff Owen/AP

Virginia voters delivered a sharp rebuke Tuesday of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and all but ended his push to roll back climate policies put in place by his Democratic predecessor.

With control of the Legislature up for grabs, Democrats maintained their majority in the state Senate and seized control of the House of Delegates from Republicans. The mean Youngkin will face a divided government in the final two years of his term.

“Virginians won’t go backwards,” said Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, in a statement after the Senate results were called. “Instead of extremism and culture wars, people voted for common sense leadership and problem solvers.”

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Virginia was perhaps the brightest spot for Democrats in a night that broke their way in several key races. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky won reelection and on clean battery plants during his victory speech. And New Jersey Democrats of the state Legislature, even after their efforts to expand offshore wind in the state took a major hit just days ago.

But it was the Virginia result that had many environmentalists breathing a sigh of relief.

“We’re proud that Virginia voters turned out and stood up to protect common sense policies that are cleaning up our air and water, growing jobs and helping to fight climate change,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund, in a statement.

Democrats in the Virginia state Senate have been instrumental these past two years in slowing efforts by Youngkin to dismantle climate policies advanced by his predecessor Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Under Northam, Virginia had elected to follow California’s strict vehicle emissions rules, which could have banned internal combustion engines in new vehicles sold in the state in 2035. While Youngkin had hoped to roll back that policy, Democrats are now well-positioned to block him.

In addition, Youngkin has sought to sidestep the Legislature by using an executive order to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among Northeastern states.

While it’s unclear whether that strategy can withstand a legal challenge, Democrats will have the power to ensure Youngkin has no legislative path to leave the program, which has seen meaningful greenhouse gas reductions in participating states.

Tuesday’s results mark an end to a heated campaign for control of Virginia’s statehouse.

In the run-up to the election, Youngkin brought unprecedented financial firepower to the state legislative races. Some $34 million was spent on legislative candidates, and Democrats struggled to keep up even as key Democratic groups dropped millions of dollars into the race in recent weeks, far more than in previous years.

The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee collectively put more than $3 million into the contest, eclipsing previous state legislative commitments. Key environmental groups, such as the League of Conservation Voters also dumped millions of dollars into the fight.

Virginia, though, wasn’t the only statehouse with seats on the ballot this year.

Farther up the East Coast, New Jersey Democrats were cheering after they kept full control of the state Legislature — bolstering the states’ climate and renewable energy initiatives.

Yet they were far from confident leading up to Election Day.

Corruption charges against Sen. Bob Menendez — — pushed Democratic officials in the state to call for his resignation amid fears the high-profile indictment could cost them seats.

There was also concern of potential blowback at the ballot box following the state’s recent stumbles on offshore wind.

Less than two weeks ago, the offshore wind developer Ørsted pulled out of the Ocean Wind project, endangering Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s efforts to expand clean energy in the state. A GOP win would have further disrupted Murphy’s climate plans, but Republican expectations fell short Tuesday.

This story also appears in Energywire.