The Minnesota Statehouse in St. Paul. Credit: stpaulgirl / Flickr / Creative Commons

Minnesota candidates haven’t pressed climate or clean energy despite rising temperatures and voter interest. 

State Sen. Jason Rarick co-sponsored a rare bipartisan energy bill this spring that sought to expand and improve Minnesota’s state energy conservation program.

The proposal earned support from unions, utilities, industry and environmental groups for its potential to save money and cut carbon emissions, but you won’t hear the Republican incumbent talking it up as part of his reelection campaign.

In a year on track to be among the hottest on record, climate and clean energy have gone virtually ignored in Minnesota campaigns dominated instead by the state’s pandemic response, crime, and police accountability.

“I do believe there would have been a lot more discussion on the energy issues if it weren’t for these other issues,” Rarick said.

Rarick, an electrician from Pine City, is more supportive of clean energy policy than many in his party. While polling suggests there’s little political risk for conservatives taking such positions, the upside may be limited as well. Just 11% of President Donald Trump’s supporters said climate was a very important issue to them, compared to 68% of Joe Biden supporters, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted this summer.

Among Democrats, climate and clean energy were big factors in primary contests this summer but have since played a subdued role in campaigns. That’s in part because in a general election they don’t need to make a hard pitch to climate voters, who already overwhelmingly trust Democrats more than Republicans

While Rarick is open to incentives for energy efficiency and energy storage, he speaks against renewable energy mandates and questions wind and solar’s potential impacts on the grid and agriculture. 

Rarick reflects the unsettled sensibility of many Republican legislators, who generally see climate change as an issue to be denied or avoided even as they slowly begin to accept the role clean energy could play in repairing the state’s pandemic-ravaged economy. Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum executive director Adam Seidel said he has seen “broad improvements” in how conservative candidates address the topic. “Republicans are not stumbling the way they used to, frankly, when asked about these issues of climate and energy,” he said.

Seidel’s group has seen more Republican candidates asking for his organization’s materials describing a “free-market” approach to renewable energy. But he concedes Democrats have a significant advantage, with more liberal advocacy organizations offering candidate endorsements. “Something Republicans and conservatives have to understand is that we need to stop thinking about these [clean energy] industries as an activist entity and think about them like normal businesses that provide jobs and economic activity.”

Benjamin Stafford, government affairs director for the nonpartisan Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, said polling found Midwest voters of both parties willing to support candidates who support renewable energy. His organization produces an annual study on jobs that divides the state by political district if candidates want to use the data, he said.

Clean energy companies are starting to work with candidates of both parties to support their industry, said Stafford, who serves on the conservative energy forum board. Republicans “are turning the corner” on clean energy as they see renewable firms in their district and hear about the growing demand from large Fortune 500 companies for more clean energy, he said.

An easy decision

The Sierra Club’s North Star chapter endorsed dozens of candidates this year, all of whom support clean energy and many who cite it as a significant issue along with the climate crisis. Joshua Davis, the Sierra Club’s political committee chair, said he thinks clean energy was a more important differentiator in the Bush and Obama years. There’s no need for most candidates to emphasize climate now.

“I don’t blame [candidates] for that this year,” Davis said. “People who are moved by clean energy already know who they’re going to vote for.”

Although environmental groups that endorse state legislative candidates offer Republicans an opportunity to seek their support, they rarely do. The Sierra Club endorsed more than 60 candidates for federal, state and local offices. MN350 Action has backed around 30 candidates for the legislature and local offices. Conservation Minnesota created a separate organization, Climate Vote Minnesota, which endorsed six senate candidates. The organizations use questionnaires and interviews with candidates to determine endorsements. Democrats captured all the state legislative endorsements from the three organizations.

“It’s not a question of Democrat or Republican; it’s a question of reasonable and unreasonable,” said Brett Benson, communications director for MN350 Action. “I can imagine us endorsing a Republican, but I think there’s too tremendous a gap. Twenty years ago, Republicans were more willing to talk about climate solutions and more willing to talk about the climate crisis and reasonable solutions. But with the advent of dark money, especially dark money coming from fossil fuel groups, now it’s political suicide for them to do that.”

Climate and clean energy become assets

Sierra Club senior campaign representative Jessica Tritsch said in the past some Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidates chose to emphasize clean energy instead of climate change. “But now people aren’t shying away from speaking about climate change because we see it everywhere in the fires, the hurricanes, the flooding.”

Democrats’ emerging boldness on climate change was on display in this summer’s primary election, when multiple progressives won races on climate-forward platforms. One example was Duluth Democrat Jen McEwen, a nonprofit leader and progressive who won 73% of the vote in her Duluth district against incumbent Erik Simonson.

“There’s a frustration that many Duluthians I think have felt is the sense of, ‘Why aren’t our leaders talking about these issues, with the kind of urgency and with the sense of realism that the science is reflecting?’” McEwen said.

Minneapolis DFL candidate Omar Fateh used a similar strategy in beating well-known DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden in a primary. He spoke about the expansion of clean energy, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and divestment by the state in fossil fuel companies. In the primary election, clean energy and the endorsements of environmental groups played significant roles in his victory, Fateh said.

The candidate believes he reflects his district in feeling “a sense of urgency in transitioning to 100% renewable energy,” he said. “We feel the climate crisis is the biggest crisis going on, not just here, but in the world.”

Fateh, who works in information technology, said he continues to speak about renewable energy as he campaigns in a heavily Democratic district. But he’s helping spread the climate change message as he assists other Democratic candidates in more moderate districts in St. Cloud, Rochester and Burnsville. Fateh believes clean energy “is a winning message.”

Lindsey Port, a Senate DFL candidate in the suburban Burnsville-Savage- Lakeville area, said she has been surprised by how often she is hearing about climate change while campaigning. 

“I thought it would be a smaller part of the campaign and that this election cycle would be about health care, and education, like it almost always is in the suburbs,” she said. “But I would say by far, the most enthusiastic sort of issue that folks are coming out of the woodwork for is climate change, and talking about how we’re going to move forward with the clean energy economy.”

Frank Jossi

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College.