Washington Climate Champ Handily Wins First-Round Race Against Gas-Backed Challenger

State Rep. Alex Ramel's reelection campaign could be a referendum on electrification.

Over the past month, the gas industry and its unions flooded a local race in Washington state with money to defeat a progressive incumbent who had championed policies to shift the Evergreen State away from gas appliances.

But voters in the district covering the San Juan Islands and neighboring coastal communities overwhelmingly favored incumbent Rep. Alex Ramel in the first round of voting on Tuesday night.

The progressive netted nearly 75% of the roughly 23,000 votes cast in the primary. Trevor Smith, the union leader who cast Ramel’s push for electrified buildings as dangerous and out-of-touch, won about 22%. Write-ins made up the other 3%.

“This result is humbling,” Ramel wrote in a tweet late Tuesday night.

In an email to HuffPost, he said “there was clearly a backlash from the community learning about that much money was being spent by oil and gas companies and their friends.”

Smith did not immediately respond to an interview request sent early Wednesday morning.

Both Democrats will now advance to November’s general election.

State Rep. Alex Ramel, who is facing a heated challenge from another Democrat in this election, speaks on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
State Rep. Alex Ramel, who is facing a heated challenge from another Democrat in this election, speaks on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
via Associated Press

The race caught national attention as political action committees started running ads backing Smith and speciously tying Ramel’s proposals to reform the state’s natural gas system to national gasoline prices, a completely different and unrelated fuel.

In June, gas companies, construction trade groups, and unions representing their workers started donating more than $300,000 to the Jackson Legacy Fund, a PAC that supports business-friendly Democrats. Later that month, the fund transferred $150,000 to another PAC called Citizens For Legislative Accountability. Since the start of July, the latter PAC has spent over $82,000 on advertisements for Smith’s campaign.

The Washington Observer, a local newsletter, first reported the surge in political spending in the race.

The spending warped the dynamics of the election overnight, bringing this race about halfway to rivaling the Washington statehouse record for the most money spent to defeat an incumbent candidate. Smith’s campaign, which cannot legally coordinate with the PACs, had raised just $24,000, compared to Ramel’s $86,000 war chest.

People sitting in a park above the ferry dock in Orcas Village on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington. The archipelago is the heart of the state's 40th legislative district.
People sitting in a park above the ferry dock in Orcas Village on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington. The archipelago is the heart of the state's 40th legislative district.
Wolfgang Kaehler via Getty Images

More money appears to be in the pipeline. Last month, Marathon Petroleum, which owns one of the two refineries in Ramel’s district, donated another $150,000 to Enterprise Washington, the network of PACs that includes Citizens For Legislative Accountability.

The bulk of the money, however, has so far come from building trades unions who say Ramel’s electrification push would leave pipefitters and welders jobless with no obvious alternatives if the natural gas network goes into decline.

“There’s nothing secret about this, nothing sinister about this. We’re there on our own workers’ behalf,” Neil Hartman, government affairs director at the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters’ Washington state association, told HuffPost last week. “And we’re not going to just say, ‘Oh, we support Trevor’ and walk away.’ We want the guy to win.”

About 13% of U.S. climate-changing emissions come directly from buildings’ gas furnaces and stovetops, though that number rises to 40% when counting the share of power plant pollution linked to buildings’ energy use.

The gas industry and its advocates have pushed low-carbon fuels such as renewable natural gas – produced with livestock manure or sewage – or synthetic fuels as an alternative to electric appliances since those fuels would allow the existing gas system to remain in place.

But those gasses could still leak from pipelines and worsen the emissions crisis. They’re also scarce. Even optimistic industry-funded forecasts suggest that there will barely be enough of those fuels to make more than a single-digit dent in gas demand by the middle of this century.

That suggests electrification will need to do the bulk of the work of slashing building emissions.

Despite that, unions like those backing Smith have focused their political efforts on blocking electrification, spending heavily to fund industry front groups that battle even modest efforts to nudge states away from gas.

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