An off-year primary election used to be a quiet affair. But last week’s Virginia primaries caught national attention—even races that played out in humble settings and small locales—as the front lines in fights over everything from former president Donald Trump’s popularity to abortion access.
Their role in the battle against climate change has generated less fanfare—but is at least as consequential.
John Qua, campaign manager for the national environmental organization Lead Locally, was elated to watch results roll in last Tuesday night for Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former state delegate and a Democratic candidate for the Virginia state senate. “She’s been a true visionary and leader for progressives,” he said with gusto. Qua, normally based in Washington, D.C., spent the day in Carroll Foy’s Northern Virginia district doing the grunt work of campaigning—knocking on doors to ask retirees and teachers and union supporters to show up at the polls for Carroll Foy. That evening, he met with a group of the candidate’s supporters and family at a Mexican restaurant in Lake Ridge, an unincorporated suburban community southwest of Alexandria, as the restaurant staff called out winning numbers for a bingo game. At about 10 pm—in a festive room painted orange and pink, with blue and white balloons dangling along one wall—Carroll Foy gave an energetic victory speech after cinching more than a 20-point lead. “They have called me every name in the book,” she said, alluding to some mudslinging that became part of her opponent’s campaign (though both candidates lobbed heavy criticism at one other). Then, her voice rose, electrified, as she thrust her index finger into the air defiantly. “From now on forward, you have to call me state senator!” Carroll Foy won in a district rated “strong Democratic” by the Virginia Public Access Project—she’s unlikely to lose in the general election.
Virginia’s primary results swept through national headlines—especially after Lashrecse Aird, a candidate for the state Senate, trounced a high-profile incumbent and an abortion opponent in a race viewed by some as a litmus test for how reproductive rights may define politics across the country. Qua’s group, Lead Locally, and a growing number of environmental organizations also see down-ballot elections like this as critical to fighting climate change and pushing for a transition away from fossil fuels. When she served in the state’s House of Delegates from 2018 to 2020, Carroll Foy was among the group of legislators who introduced the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which commits the state to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But whether the state achieves that goal will depend on its ability to wean its utility companies off of fossil fuels and on to renewable sources. In this election, Carroll Foy was part of a slate of more than two dozen competitive candidates who eschewed campaign funding from Dominion Energy, a Fortune 500 utility company that supplies power to two-thirds of Virginians and holds a monopoly over much of the state’s electricity sector. The company is one of Virginia’s top political donors, underwriting both Democratic and Republican campaigns. Writing in The Atlantic earlier this month, author George Packer called Dominion’s influence in Virginia “a glaring version of the corruption that underlies so much of American politics.”
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Many Virginians say the company has also stymied progress on climate change. While Dominion is mandated to produce carbon-neutral power in the state by 2045, the company has also announced plans to build new natural gas plants—which would only add to its emissions. Dominion is also investing in renewables, but critics say even these efforts take advantage of ratepayers. “The status quo for a very long time has basically been that Dominion heaps staggering campaign cash on candidates, and then largely writes their own legislation, which is obviously tilted towards their bottom line and protecting corporate shareholder profit,” says Cassady Craighill, deputy director of Clean Virginia, a PAC founded by wealthy Democratic donor Michael Bills to support candidates from both parties willing to turn down utility company contributions. Such political organizing has helped loosen the hold Dominion has on state politics. In this primary, 20 of the 25 candidates supported by Clean Virginia have won—all Democrats. (All told, the group has endorsed more than 50 candidates this season, including one Republican, state Senator David Suetterlein, who is competing in the general election.) Clean Virginia and Bills now rival and sometimes surpass Dominion in political giving—with the PAC spending $4.8 million on candidates for state offices in the 2022–23 campaign cycle, while Dominion spent $5.5 million. (Dominion didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.)
For decades, across the US, groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have jumped into state and local politics—endorsing candidates and supporting campaigns on issues like conservation or pollution cleanup. But only recently have environmentalists given significant attention to the role that states and local governments can play in climate change. “You’re going to get a national climate bill out of Congress every 10 years, maybe,” says Qua. “What are you going to do the rest of that time?” Since its founding in 2016, Lead Locally has supported nearly 400 candidates willing to take on local and state climate issues. The scrappy, small-staffed organization always partners with regional and local groups and campaigns—and often leaps into lower-profile races, including primaries—to back candidates who have especially ambitious climate platforms. Other organizations, like the Environmental Voter Project, have dedicated their energies to getting climate-concerned Americans to the polls during primary, local, state, and federal elections. Some political action committees are also fundraising for state and local candidates with strong stances on climate change—including the Jane Fonda Climate PAC, which endorsed Jennifer Carroll Foy and others running for the Virginia General Assembly.
Across the US, the battle lines of the energy transition are also drawn around utility politics and regulations—which are often set at the state and sometimes the local level. What happens with companies like Dominion—and their vast networks of power plants and infrastructure—will determine whether the nation makes a successful shift from fossil fuel power plants to renewables and from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles. In Massachusetts, utilities have lobbied against bills promoting everything from rooftop solar to eliminating gas leaks. And utility companies have held a choke hold on energy policy in a range of other states such as Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, says David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute. “We will be in the best position to achieve a rapid, equitable, affordable decarbonization if we shrink the political power of utilities like Dominion that are currently standing in the way of that,” Pomerantz insists. Even in locations where utilities are progressive or publicly owned, big decisions about infrastructure, consumer rates, power plant construction, and other such questions can become politically contentious.
The politics of electricity have been at the center of many of Lead Locally’s campaigns. In Alaska, for instance, the organization supported a series of clean energy advocates who were running for positions on the boards of electric cooperatives—including Alaska Native activist Anastasia Buretta, who won a seat on the Matanuska Electric Association board. In Louisiana, Lead Locally was one of a number of progressive groups, including the New Orleans chapter of the youth-led Sunrise Movement and the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance, that supported Davante Lewis, who won a seat on the state public service commission, which regulates utilities in Louisiana. Lewis wants to develop requirements for a higher percentage of Louisiana’s power to come from renewables. (Currently the state only produces about 3.5 percent from clean energy.) In San Antonio in 2021, Lead Locally supported two councilors who helped put together a plan for retiring the city’s coal plant.
In recent years, climate advocates have more actively pursued alliances with other constituencies, finding common ground on social and economic issues. Utility rates and access to basic services like home heating are an economic justice concern. Air pollution is also a form of racial injustice, disproportionately affecting communities of color. Such intersecting issues can bring more powerful coalitions together to support particular candidates. Lead Locally backed 13 candidates competing in last week’s Virginia primary (nine of whom won in preliminary results, including Aird and Foy)—and campaigned alongside a number of other progressive organizations like the Virginia Justice Democrats, which focuses a range of issues such as restraining the role of corporations in state politics. New Virginia Majority, which organizes in working-class communities of color, also coordinates closely with environmental and climate groups, labor unions, Planned Parenthood, and other progressive organizations on messaging strategies and canvassing.
Frustration with Dominion has also brought together some unusual allies. The company recently settled with the state, Walmart, the Sierra Club, and a group called Appalachian Voices over a massive and expensive offshore wind project: The settlement limited Dominion’s ability to pass budget overruns from the project to customers. This past February, Virginia enacted a groundbreaking law to tighten regulatory oversight on the utility—supported by both parties and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. (Youngkin has not, however, embraced climate goals—and is actively trying to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a multistate program to reduce emissions from the power sector.)
Both Qua and Craighill say they are playing a long game on Virginia politics—building a trifecta of officials in the state Senate, House of Delegates, and governor’s office who are willing to rein in the influence of utility companies. Of course, it remains to be seen how many of these new primary victors will also win in the general election, and, even beyond that, Qua thinks it will take years to fully wrest Virginia politics free from Dominion’s grip. “This is really a long haul fight,” says Qua. “But I think that there is a lot of hope there.”