Climate Activists Thought Democrats Were Poised to Reclaim the Senate. Then Came Election Day.

 Gage Skidmore / flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The dreams of climate-concerned Americans who had hoped voters would hand Democrats control of the Senate—along with the power to act on a climate agenda—were all but dashed in the election, despite bitterly fought campaigns from Maine to Arizona.

Democrats went into the election targeting half a dozen or more Republican incumbents, needing only to pick up three seats. 

Former astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado took big early leads on election night, when it looked like that script might play out. But then key Republican incumbents held off their Democratic challengers—Sens. Joni Ernst in Iowa, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Susan Collins in Maine, and most likely Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Dan Sullivan in Alaska.

While there were still technically pathways for Democrats to pick up a couple of seats, they appeared late Wednesday to be long shots at best, leaving some climate activists distraught.

"I have a really dreadful feeling about this election," said Khadija Khokhar, an organizer for Zero Hour, a youth-led climate and justice organization. "There is so much work to do."

There was a lot at stake for the climate and the economy in an election year that produced record-setting hurricane and wildfire seasons. Across the West, energy and climate change was a leading issue for many voters. They lived through drought, heat waves and forest fires this summer. Some of them fretted over declines in the energy industry and the potential cost of clean energy.

Democrats will still control the House of Representatives, where they are likely to continue to press for action on climate change.

Experts have said that in a Republican-controlled Senate, there still could be some less ambitious climate legislation. But Republicans have not so far put forward any comprehensive climate plans.

"None of the Republican programs we have seen would get you anywhere near the emissions reductions required, given the science around climate change," said David Konisky, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. 

Scientists have said that to keep global temperatures from rising beyond acceptable limits, there's a global need to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Perhaps the most telling upset that never happened was in Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell kept his job, despite a fossil fuels agenda, his defense of Trump's anti-science and deregulatory policies and no plan for climate change. McConnell, 78, was rewarded with a seventh term by soundly defeating Democrat Amy McGrath, despite her $80 million warchest.

"I am glad they decided our arguments were better than hers," he said Wednesday.

Anticipating the Senate race outcomes would go Republicans' way, he said, "If my math is correct, I will still be the offensive coordinator."

The current Republican majority is 53. For Democrats to secure a 51-vote majority, they would have needed a net gain of three Republican seats plus a tie-breaking vote by a Democratic vice president, Kamala Harris, assuming a win by former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential race. If President Trump wins, the Democrats would need to net four seats previously held by Republicans. 

But, by Wednesday evening, Democrats watched nearly all their hopes slip away. Sen. David Perdue's continued to comfortably lead Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff with 50.3 percent of the vote as the final ballots were being counted in Georgia, thus potentially avoiding a Jan. 5 runoff election. In the race for Georgia's other Senate seat, Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock led a crowded field in a special election and will face incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a Jan. 5 runoff, since neither collected more than 50 percent of the vote. Loeffler was appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to fill the seat vacated late last year by Johnny Isakson. 

Warnock, a vocal environmental and climate justice advocate, received considerably fewer votes than Loeffler and her main challenger, Republican Rep. Doug Collins, illustrating the challenge Warnock will face in January. 

The widely respected Cook Political Report said Democrats' "razor-thin hopes" of regaining control of the Senate would hinge on Georgia runoffs in January if the Perdue-Ossoff race also requires a runoff—and then Democrats would have to defeat both GOP incumbents, Perdue and Loeffler. 

Going into Tuesday's election, climate voters revelled in the likelihood that a national climate policy might finally be on the near horizon as pollsters projected that Democrats had a good chance of winning the Senate majority and positioning Congress to reduce carbon emissions and advance clean energy.

Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website had given Democrats a 78 percent chance of flipping the Senate. And the Cook Report had concluded that Democrats were the clear favorites to take back the Senate with just days to go until Election Day.

But on Wednesday, the Cook report had a new analysis.

It called the outlook for Warnock "ominous" in the runoff, while noting the Democrats' failures in "multiple avenues of flipping the Senate" and that, "in all likelihood," Republicans would hold on. "In races that Democrats were bullish on and even Republicans sounded very wary about holding in the final days, everything came up red."

Republicans went on a roll.

In Iowa, Ernst, who has had a significant relationship with Big Oil, survived an embarrassing moment during a debate with Democrat Theresa Greenfield, where Ernst failed to know the break-even price of soybeans. 

In Maine, Collins, who has the strongest voting record on climate among Senate Republicans, won a fifth term by defeating Democrat Sara Gideon in what the Portland Press Herald described as "an intensely negative contest."

Big environmental groups like the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters that had abandoned Collins for Gideon now find themselves in the position of having to rebuild their bridges with her.

Republicans also took back the Senate seat in Alabama held by Doug Jones, with a victory by a former football coach, Tommy Tuberville, who argued that only God can control the climate.

And one of most closely watched and expensive Senate races was in South Carolina, where Graham, a self-styled climate champion with little to show for his rhetoric, defeated a well-funded Jaime Harrison, a Democrat who had set fundraising records.

"To those who have been following this race, I hope you got the message," Graham said during his victory speech. "If you don't get this message, it's hopeless. The message I got: people like what I am doing and I am going to keep doing it. I am going back to the Senate with a purpose."

Part of that purpose, he said, was to "do everything I can to stop the radical agenda coming from Nancy Pelosi's House."

Coming into the race, most scenarios for Democrats taking back the Senate started with Hickenlooper beating Sen. Cory Gardner and Kelly, a retired astronaut married to former Rep. Gabby Giffords, defeating Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona.

They were able to do that.

During his campaign this year, Hickenlooper—who some progressives had dubbed "Frackenlooper"—managed to transform his reputation as a fossil fuel-industry supporter into a candidate pledging to fight climate change.  Gardner had sought to dodge the anti-climate label applied to the GOP.

"From start to finish, the race for the Senate in Colorado has been about public lands and addressing climate change," said Gene Karpinski, president of the national environment-focused political action committee, the League of Conservation Voters.

Hickenlooper was also endorsed by the Protect Our Winters Action Fund, a climate action group led by outdoor athletes, which noted that "Colorado's winter sports tourism economy is in harm's way due to climate change." The fund also backed Kelly, noting that he "has spoken favorably of a carbon tax."

In Arizona, Kelly told voters during the campaign how his views on climate and the environment were shaped by his experiences in space. He pledged to use science and data as tools to help tackle climate change and facilitate Arizona's transition to renewable energy.

In Montana, a tight race went to incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who fought off a challenge by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in an intense battle that left many Montanans eager for the campaign season to end.

In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said national political pundits and pollsters that had forecast a good night for Democrats got it wrong once again in the race between Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy, a charismatic Black candidate and former Agriculture Secretary.

"We are going to elect someone who is going back to Washington and still be in the majority," Reeves said at a victory celebration for Hyde-Smith, who easily defeated Espy by 13 percentage points. 

"It was the Second Amendment that was on the ballot tonight," said Hyde-Smith, who had tied her fortunes to Trump's agenda and supported production of Mississippi's and the nation's energy resources, including biofuels. "It was socialism that was on the ballot."

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