Voters in line
Early voters wait to cast their ballots in Durham, N.C., on Oct. 15. Credit: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The outcome in about a dozen competitive legislative races and the contest for Lt. Governor could tip the balance on climate and clean energy legislation in the state.

North Carolina is widely considered pivotal to control of both the White House and the U.S. Senate. But these ballot-topping races have nearly overshadowed an equally tight contest in the Tar Heel state: the battle for the majority in the state House and Senate.

While climate change has taken a public back seat to the pandemic and the economy in this year’s election, the outcome in about a dozen legislative races and the contest for Lieutenant Governor could determine whether and how fulsomely the state tackles the problem.

Wilmington is one of several key battlegrounds. Perched at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, it’s already suffering the effects of a warming planet — from devastating storms like Hurricanes Michael and Florence to rising seas slowly shrinking area beaches. 

With two key state legislative races, and the opportunity to help sway the state for Democrats Joe Biden and Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, the city has an important role to play, Biden supporters said on Saturday at a news conference in downtown.

“What North Carolinians do over the coming days can literally shape the future of this city, and this world,” said Wilmington city councilor Kevin Spears. “We have the power to take control. We just need to go vote.”

Democratic House Candidate Adam Ericson, left, Young Dems regional director Samuel Johnson, and Wilmington city councilor Kevin Spears at news conference in Wilmington, N.C. (photo by Elizabeth Ouzts)

‘I wouldn’t expect that to change’ 

In his first term, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is running comfortably ahead of his challenger, the current lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Forest.

Most climate activists are firmly in Cooper’s camp, and not just because Forest has publicly questioned the science of global warming. In 2018, Cooper issued Executive Order 80, aligned with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. He backed it up the following year with a blueprint to reduce utility sector climate pollution 70% by 2030 and down to zero by midcentury — targets consistent with what scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

But there’s only so much the executive branch can do on its own. Most steps embedded in Cooper’s strategy, like a requirement that utilities enact a target amount of energy efficiency programs or an increase in the state’s clean energy mandate, would require a change in the law. 

“The legislature could pick many ideas from the Clean Energy Plan and do a lot for addressing climate change,” said Cassie Gavin, chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Sierra Club. 

In its decade in the majority, the GOP has grabbed plenty of negative headlines on climate and energy policy, from passing a law to promote oil drilling in federal ocean waters off the state’s coast to banning wind power development.

Lately, most legislative leaders have been mum on the topic of climate change, anxious not to alienate either their conservative base — some of which remains skeptical there is a problem — or the general public — the majority of whom want policy to solve it.

But while the House has shown interest in advancing the clean energy economy, the Senate has rarely gone along. For instance, the chamber stalled a popular House-passed measure to increase energy efficiency in government buildings two years in a row. For many advocates, it’s difficult to imagine GOP Senate leaders embracing Cooper’s climate agenda next year. 

“I haven’t seen any inclination on their part to do that so far,” Gavin said. “I would not expect that to change.”

‘Voters are with us’

For climate activists, then, the choice is clear: “We are supporting Democrats up and down the ballot because young voters desperately want to see climate action,” said Rachel Weber, North Carolina press secretary for NextGen America, which mobilizes young voters in elections. Of the current Republican Senate President Pro Tempore, she added, “we’ve got to make sure that we don’t allow Phil Berger to stay in control and call the shots.”

To win a majority, Democrats need to gain five seats in the 50-member Senate and six seats in the 120-member House. After courts ordered several districts to be redrawn, up to 14 Senate races and 24 House races could be in play, according to the progressive think tank Real Facts NC, though the conservative Civitas Institute rates fewer contests as close. 

Voters aged 18 to 35 could be crucial in many of these races. Together, Gen Z’ers and Millennials make up the largest share of the state’s electorate, and surveys show they overwhelmingly support Democrats and care about climate change. Students on college campuses, in particular, could be a deciding factor — from East Carolina University in Greenville, where Democrat Brian Farkas is taking on Republican Rep. Perrin Jones, to Appalachian State University and Western North Carolina University, where Democratic Reps. Ray Russell and Joe Sam Queen are defending their seats.

So far in the early voting period, 60% more young voters have turned out than they did at this point in 2016, already making up nearly a quarter of the more than 3 million ballots cast. That bodes well, says NextGen, since young people tend to vote later. 

“We’re absolutely on track for record youth voter turnout,” Weber said.

The nonpartisan Conservation Votes PAC, the independent expenditure PAC created by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, talks about electing a “green majority” rather than a Democratic one. But it, too, is targeting the districts that could decide control of the legislature, investing $2 million in ads, mailers, and phone outreach in 13 critical races. 

The PAC is spending money in support of one Republican: Fayetteville Rep. John Szoka, the author of numerous clean energy bills, including a 2017 law designed to double solar energy by next year. But everyone else getting an extra lift from the PAC is a Democrat challenging a Republican incumbent. 

For the House, their slate includes Democrats Ricky Hurtado in Alamance County, who supports limiting carbon emissions and making the state a national leader on renewable energy, and Gail Young, whose challenger, Rep. Larry Pittman in Cabarrus County, calls climate change a “fraud” comparable to unicorns and the tooth fairy

And it includes Adam Ericson, a public high school teacher running to defeat Rep. Ted Davis in New Hanover County. “Getting to 100% clean energy is not only an obligation,” Ericson told the pro-Biden crowd on Saturday. “It is also an opportunity.”

In the Senate, supported candidates include Terri LeGrand, a law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem who founded two local environmental groups and features solutions to the climate crisis on her campaign website. LeGrand faces Sen. Joyce Krawiec, who has a lifetime score of 2% on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard. 

These districts are hardly liberal enclaves, but voters there are concerned about climate pollution. According to the PAC’s internal polling, between 56% and 66% support policies for zero carbon emissions by midcentury. “Voters are with us on the issues,” said Dan Crawford, the group’s director, “and we’re doing everything we can to let them know what’s at stake in this election.”

‘We don’t really have choice’

Longtime environmental champions like Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat running unopposed, is bullish about her party’s chances. “There’s a good chance there will be Democrats in charge of all three branches of government,” she said.

While Harrison said Medicaid expansion and independent redistricting might take first priority, climate will also be on the agenda, given the urgency for action. “We don’t really have a choice,” she said.

Harrison pointed to bills she and others have filed in previous years to achieve 100% clean energy by midcentury and praised Cooper’s leadership on the issue. “Supplementing whatever he needs from the legislative branch to implement his executive order,” she said, “there’s a lot of interest in that.”

Senate Democratic Whip Jay Chaudhuri, who represents a deep blue Raleigh district, said he and his colleagues believe Cooper’s plan will create tens of thousands of clean energy jobs in urban and rural areas.

“We share concerns with an overwhelming majority of scientists who agree that climate change is real, and humans are the primary cause of it,” Chaudhuri said over email. “We also believe that if our state fails to act now, we will find parts of our treasured coast underwater.” 

Other Democrats suggested the state could go beyond Cooper’s plan, addressing the transportation sector, the largest source of climate pollution, as well as the electric grid.

“The big opportunity is comprehensive climate legislation,” said Julie Mayfield, the Democratic candidate heavily favored to win Asheville’s Senate District 49. “Trying not to piecemeal it — but get a comprehensive path forward.”

Mayfield and others said a blueprint for action could come from North Carolina’s northern neighbor, which this year passed legislation requiring the state’s largest utilities to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “It would be silly not to look at Virginia,” she said.

Samuel Johnson, 23-year-old eastern North Carolina director for the Young Dems, is counting on his cohort to turn out to the polls. (photo by Elizabeth Ouzts)

‘It’s going to be very close’

Still, a Democratic takeover of North Carolina state government is far from certain. The Cook Political Report believes Republicans are more likely than not to keep control of the House, a view shared by the GOP lawmaker Szoka, who is competing in a critical House race himself.

“I think it’s going to be very close,” he said, “but I think I’m going to win.” He added, “when Republicans remain in charge – not if — I think it will be good for renewable energy.”

Szoka has drawn support from clean energy businesses and Environmental Defense Fund Action in addition to Conservation Votes PAC. The former two are steadfast in their agnosticism about party control, believing that bipartisan support is critical for any policy to move forward in a closely divided legislature, no matter who holds the gavel.

These groups point to growing support for not only renewable energy, but also for injecting more competition into electricity markets, an idea championed by Szoka as well as conservative Rep. Larry Strickland of Johnston County, who’s heavily favored to win. 

“Between the governor’s process, and Executive Order 80, and the discussion happening in the legislature,” said Chris Carmody, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Business Association, “both sides are really converging around the same kinds of conversations.”

Asked if House Republicans would enact pieces of Cooper’s clean energy plan and take other steps on climate change commiserate with the science, House Speaker Tim Moore’s office didn’t reject the notion out of hand.

Pointing to Szoka’s 2017 bill, which passed with bipartisan support, spokesperson Joseph Kyzer said in an email: “I expect lawmakers to continue pursuing their shared priorities of a cleaner and more reliable grid that keeps costs down for consumers with market-based solutions. That is the record of this legislature – achieving real results by setting obtainable goals and reaching consensus among lawmakers through a collaborative stakeholder process.”

Berger’s office didn’t respond to the same inquiry. And with Cook rating the state Senate a toss-up, the race for Lieutenant Governor, who presides over the chamber and votes in case of a tie, has taken on outsized importance. 

The Democratic candidate, Raleigh legislator Yvonne Holley, has an 88% score from the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters. The Republican, gun rights activist Mark Robinson, said falsely in a debate earlier this month that “climate change has not been proven scientifically.”

Robinson’s rejection of climate science is far from his only extreme position. On his Facebook page and in interviews, he has also espoused an array of fringe transphobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic views, setting off alarm bells for progressives.

“He is an embarrassment, and someone we cannot have in that position,” said Crawford. “If I woke up on Nov. 4, and the Lt. Governor was Mark Robinson and there was a tied Senate, I would be sick.” 

As the campaigns enter the final stretch, they’re doing everything they can to turn out voters through the early voting period that ends on Halloween Day, and then again on Tuesday. For young voters especially, this last-minute outreach is critical. 

Organizers like Samuel Johnson, eastern North Carolina director for the Young Dems, are anxious about a repeat of 2016, when nearly half of registered voters aged 18 to 25 didn’t cast a ballot and President Donald Trump won by nearly 4 percentage points. 

“We cannot make the same mistake this time around,” said the 23-year-old Johnson, who grew up in rural Onslow County. “Millions of North Carolinians have already voted, but there are still millions more that need to come out, especially our young people.”

But climate activists are also clear-eyed that the work doesn’t end next week.

“Regardless of what happens on Nov. 3, the movement for climate action is not going to end,” said NextGen’s Weber. “No matter who’s in office, we’re still going to have to push them to work on the kinds of policies, to push for the kinds of changes that we know are really needed to avoid an absolute climate catastrophe.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.