Down Ballot Downsides

When Americans head to the ballot box next November, most eyes will be on marquee races like President and Congress, but energy public affairs professionals should focus further down the ballot for races that could have weightier implications for the regulatory landscape across the country.  

This Week's Trend In Brief:

  • When Americans head to the ballot box next November, most eyes will be on marquee races like President and Congress, but energy public affairs professionals should focus further down the ballot for races that could have weightier implications for the regulatory landscape across the country.

  • 6,477 elections are on next November’s ballot for federal and state positions, plus tens of thousands more for county and municipal offices, including nine states that will vote to elect new public utility commissioners and two states that will elect Governors who will be able to appoint new members of their commissions in their first year in office.

  • While many these of races – particularly those for obscure regulatory bodies like PUC – get little attention from media and pundits, climate activists are highly attuned to the impact they can have on the energy industry’s ability to operate.

  •  Not only are these environmentalist groups endorsing and funding candidates, they are getting their own members elected or appointed to key state and local positions like PUCs as well as county and municipal offices that oversee permitting, utilities, and other key interests of the energy industry.

  • Energy industry public affairs professionals cannot wait for their opponents to shape these key down ballot races and appointments, but must engage early to assess the candidates and understand how they will impact the industry, then take action to ensure the best results on Election Day.

Digging Deeper:

In 2024, Americans will vote in 6,477 elections for federal and state offices, plus tens of thousands more at the local level – but the media likely won’t focus on the ones that matter most to energy industry public affairs professionals. While the media focuses on the top of the ticket and the political dynamics driving voters to the polls, sharp-eyed public affairs professionals know down ballot races will in many cases have a bigger impact on their firms’ ability to operate and get projects built. That includes elections in nine states for 15 public utility commissioners, and eleven elections for Governors who will have the chance to appoint 36 new public utility commissioners once in office.
Less noticed elected and appointed officials like PUC Commissioners are vitally important to the energy industry’s ability to operate, but commissions are becoming less experienced and more political thanks to growing activism around energy policy. Across the country, long-time PUC commissioners are retiring and taking decades of experience with them. When these commissioners retire, it opens up elections or gives governors and state legislatures the chance to appoint new commissioners. Activists are honing in on this trend and taking advantage of the opportunity it presents.
Indeed, climate activist groups like RMI that are focused on decarbonization have been promoting the “untapped potential of public utility commissions” to reshape energy policy, even if it falls outside the commissions’ remit. RMI argues that because PUCs and their staff “are uniquely situated as the arbiters of utility decision-making,” they should play a more aggressive role in transitioning the energy grid to zero-carbon. In fact, RMI has laid out a strategy to leverage PUCs’ “immense influence over how utilities invest and operate” to do exactly that, seeing it as one way for activists to bypass governors and state legislators and enact their preferred policies, or pressure like-minded elected officials to appointment commissioners who support their decarbonization agenda.
Climate activists have already secured PUC appointments across the country. Earlier this year, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed RMI’s carbon-free transportation manager Alessandra Carreon to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Similarly, Conservation Law Center vice president of environmental justice Staci Rubin was appointed as a member of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities Commission and decarbonization consultant Carolyn Gilbert was appointed to the Maine Public Service Commission. Colorado Governor Jared Polis appointed Tom Plant to the Colorado Utilities Commission with the support of Sierra Club Colorado and Colorado Conservation Voters, who had previously named him their legislator of the year. As the 2024 election gets closer, it is crucial to know which officials on the ballot will have the power to make these appointments, how they will approach the process, and who will shape and influence their selections. In addition to the nine states who will elect PUC members next November, another nine will elect Governors who appoint these regulatory bodies’ members.
20% of states directly elect PUC commissioners, and if the last cycle is any indication, climate activists will invest big to win some of these seats. As we noted earlier this year, “recent electoral history shows these [climate] groups will provide candidates up and down the ballot with significant financial and institutional support.” In 2022, for example, the Environmental Defense Fund spent $250,000 to help elect environmentalist ally Davante Lewis to the Louisiana Public Service Commission. Since his election, Lewis has continually pledged “to bring clean, affordable and reliable utilities to the people of Louisiana” and elevated local activists who allege that oil and gas companies in the state “are hurting us by causing climate change.” While as a runoff the race received national coverage from outlets like The Washington Post, which noted “the obscure runoff race could help shape state climate action,” many of the races coming in November will not receive such attention.
Activist groups across the country are already working to get allies and even their own members elected to these impactful positions, and energy industry public affairs professionals must engage early to ensure their interests are protected. That means assessing the potential candidates and understanding how they will impact the industry before it is too late to shape the debate, then taking action to ensure the best results on Election Day. It is crucial to understand where risk exists in which states, build an information advantage about the candidates and other election influencers, and create a monitoring and analysis system to avoid down ballot surprises. Delve is here to help ensure you stay a step ahead of the elections and their consequences.

Trends in Energy is your weekly look at key trends affecting the energy industry, brought to you by the competitive intelligence experts at Delve. As the political and regulatory landscape continues to shift, reach out to learn how our insights can help you navigate these challenges.