Electing climate champions to office is critical to passing climate policy. In 2019, after flipping the Virginia legislature to a pro-climate majority, Virginia passed the 100% Clean Economy Act, created an office of environmental justice, approved Clean Cars Standards, and more. But even beyond the outcome of elections, the campaign trail is an opportunity to shape the narrative around different issues and to set the agenda for legislators that make it into office.
That’s why, in addition to endorsements, we run an extensive candidate engagement program designed to help pro-climate candidates make climate change solutions a bigger part of their campaign - in a way that will help them win.
Here’s a recap of our 2021 candidate engagement program in Virginia:
This year, in addition to the 10 candidates we endorsed, we worked with 24 candidates running for the Virginia House of Delegates to make sure they were the boldest climate champions they could be.
We worked with primary challengers, incumbents, and first time Democrats challenging entrenched Republicans - in diverse districts ranging from the Atlantic coast to wine country, rural to urban, and red to blue. We don’t turn away from any campaign that opts-in to support, regardless of their chances of victory. In fact, some of our favorite campaigns to work with are first-time candidates running in extremely conservative districts. These campaigns are building the groundwork to win on climate in the long-run, even if winning the district now is a long-shot.
This year, 7 of these campaigns had primary challengers; 2 advanced from the primary. We worked with 17 additional candidates running in the general election. Of those, 9 won.
We know climate & clean energy are winning issues for Virginia - and action is more urgent than ever. Our goal was to make sure every campaign had winning climate talking points and bold policy platforms at their fingertips throughout this election cycle.
So how does our program work?
We used our tech-enabled platform to generate district-specific briefs for every district in Virginia. These briefs include localized data on clean energy jobs, asthma rates and polling; the incumbent’s vote record and Climate Score; messaging guidance; and climate policy priorities based on input from state-based partners.
Then, we proactively reached out to every Democrat running for office, sharing district-specific climate & energy memos and asking candidates to opt-in to further support. Our opt-in rate was 23%.
This builds on the success of our 2020 engagement cycle, in which we worked with 98 campaigns across three states and Congress.
Why only Democrats? We only work with candidates who will prioritize climate action in good faith, and our analysis of climate voting records in Virginia showed a clear fault line between the parties (as you can see here).
From there, we held one-on-one Zoom meetings with candidates and campaign staff. In these meetings, we learn about the candidate’s priorities and what type of support they need. We follow up with additional research and talking points, and occasionally additional opposition research or custom drafting.
We keep candidates engaged throughout the remainder of the cycle - checking in about upcoming debates, current events, new polling, and more.
This year, candidates put our research to use in townhalls, debates, social media discussions, on their websites, and at the door with voters - talking about climate action & environmental justice in communities across VA.
Here are some of our favorite examples:
This is our third full cycle of candidate engagement, and we learn important lessons every time. In 2020, we worked with 98 campaigns across three states and Congress - and one of our key takeaways was the need to get involved earlier. In 2020, candidates were twice as likely to engage with us if we reached out before the primary. This year, we reached out to every campaign in April (the primary was in June), and our opt-in rate was high from the start (24% after only one cold outreach email campaign). Engaging in the primary also allowed us to help candidates shape their platform earlier, and make climate change a bigger focus from the start. Interestingly, we worked with a higher percentage of incumbents this year than ever before. In 2020, over half of our candidates were first-time candidates or challengers. In 2021, this percentage was only 41%.
This likely has several explanations: (1) Virginia Democrats were in the majority before the election, so we reached out to more incumbents than challengers to begin with. (2) Virginia had just passed some major climate wins, so it’s possible that incumbents were seeking to capitalize on this on the campaign trail. And (3) we sent out our engagement emails in batches - and the batch that went to incumbents landed on Earth Day. The email with the special Earth Day hook had an open rate of 71% - much higher than open rates of 65% and 29% in previous batches, which also led to more opt-ins and more candidate conversions with incumbents. We’ll definitely do a bigger Earth Day engagement push next year!
Next year’s state legislature elections will be critical for climate action in the US. Regardless of what happens with federal climate negotiations this fall, next year, state legislatures will need to leverage big federal clean energy investments or step up to fill the gap. That’s why we’re gearing up now to get involved early in 2022 and make sure legislators across the US are campaigning on bold climate platforms - shaping the narrative and taking office on Day One with a mandate for strong and equitable climate action.