Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Electric vehicles emerge as flashpoint in 2024 election

Electric vehicles emerge as flashpoint in 2024 election

Just two years ago, Senate Democrats banded together to push through sweeping legislation aimed at combating climate change in part by speeding the transition to electric vehicles with tax credits and other incentives.

But now, facing a tough reelection climate in November, some Senate Democrats who are fighting for their political lives in red states are distancing themselves from aspects of President Biden’s EV policies as Republicans go on the offense against Biden’s environmental agenda.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has made bashing EVs a cornerstone of his campaign, effectively turning them into culture war fodder in an election year. Meanwhile, a fossil fuel industry group is pouring millions of dollars in ads in swing states tying Democratic senators to Biden’s EV push.

Trump has vowed to roll back Biden’s electric vehicle efforts and warned “you’re not going to be able to sell those cars” if he becomes president.

Biden required automakers to ramp up sales of EVs while slashing carbon emissions from gasoline-powered models, which account for about one-fifth of America’s contribution to global warming, in tough new emissions standards. Automakers will not need to dramatically boost EVs sales until after 2030, in a concession to car manufacturers who worried about a faster timeline initially proposed by Biden.

The electric vehicle, or EV, issue combines several potent political ingredients — China, class warfare and what the GOP will probably describe as a spending spree by Congress. The policy’s defenders point out the EV transition is crucial to slowing the worst effects of climate change and note the tens of millions of dollars of investment in EV-related factories in the United States, which should create high-paying manufacturing jobs.

It is an easy attack line for Trump, however, who called the Biden regulations “ridiculous” in a recent meeting with oil industry executives who he brazenly asked to raise $1 billion for his campaign.

At a rally in Las Vegas earlier this month, Trump went on a lengthy rant against electric-powered boats, saying he would have trouble knowing what to do if the boat was sinking in shark-infested waters. “Do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking, water goes over the battery, the boat is sinking? Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted, or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted?” he asked.

“I’ll take electrocution every single time,” he said. “I’m not getting near the shark.”

Last week, Trump told Senate Republicans behind closed doors he would “get rid of” Biden’s “disastrous” EV policy if he’s elected president, according to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo).

Some Democrats in particularly tough races are distancing themselves from aspects of Biden’s policies. The issue has become so politicized that data shows more Democrats than Republicans are buying EVs.

In May, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced a bipartisan Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the Biden administration’s decision to allow components of EV batteries to be made in China, putting an exclamation point on his weeks of criticism of the Biden administration’s stance toward EVs.

“The U.S. must ban Chinese electric vehicles now, and stop a flood of Chinese government-subsidized cars that threaten Ohio auto jobs, and our national and economic security,” Brown wrote in an April letter to Biden.

Earlier in May, the Biden administration announced steep new tariffs on Chinese-made electric vehicles.

Both Brown and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) unsuccessfully voted to roll back Biden’s emissions standards, and also voted with Republicans to scrap a Biden rule that would exempt EV charging stations from “Buy America” rules. Biden later vetoed the chargers measure.

“There is a lot of concern about electric vehicles out of the state of Ohio that’s probably bad for Sherrod Brown overall, but the silver lining is it provides him an opportunity to draw some contrasts to Joe Biden,” said Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton.

In Ohio, an auto manufacturing state where cars are core to politics, Brown’s GOP rival, Bernie Moreno, has criticized the “manic” move to EVs, saying it could destroy the auto industry. Brown allies have gone after Moreno for previously selling Chinese-made Buicks in his car dealership.

Ohio is home to auto manufacturing plants, including some owned by General Motors, who have signed onto the Biden administration’s EV push. After the Environmental Protection Agency adjusted its initial emissions standards and slowed the pace to electrification in its latest regulation, most of the auto industry has signed onto the policy. The powerful United Auto Workers union has endorsed Biden, as well, after the president assuaged concerns about his commitment to promoting union jobs in electric vehicle-related factories.

Tester said he believes there needs to be more research and development of EV car batteries before more consumers will want to purchase the vehicles. “I’m an internal combustion guy,” Tester said. “The truth is if you’re going to make it competitive we’ve got to get batteries to a point where they’re more affordable and longer lasting and work at colder weather conditions.”

According to Tester’s memoir, published in 2020, he bought a used Prius to drive while in Washington, D.C.

But it’s hard to make nuanced arguments during a campaign year.

Both men are facing ads funded by a fuel industry group in their states claiming that Biden will soon ban most gas-powered cars — a reference to the president’s stringent new emissions standards that experts say is misleading.

One new ad that will begin running this week as part of a broader $6.6 million buy shows Tester’s image photoshopped into the back seat of a car with Biden. “President Biden is banning most new gas cars,” a narrator intones in the background. “Putting our freedom to choose what to drive in the rearview mirror. And Senator Jon Tester couldn’t stop him.” The ad urges voters to call Tester to tell him to keep working to stop the “ban.” Similar ads featuring Brown and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) will run in their states, where both senators face tough reelection bids, as well as in six other states.

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers President and CEO Chet Thompson said he is “agnostic” on who wins the Senate races in the swing states where his group is running ads but believes the Biden administration’s EV policies are “wildly unpopular” with voters.

Thompson defended his ads’ use of the word “ban,” which experts say is inaccurate, because the new emissions standards will require auto manufacturers to make dramatically more EVs and fewer gas-powered vehicles to comply. That transition will be gradual, however.

The EPA says EVs would account for approximately “30 percent to 56 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales” and “20 percent to 32 percent of new medium-duty vehicle sales” in 2030. That’s below Biden’s initial stated desire to have EVs account for half of all new car sales by 2030. And neither constitutes a ban.

“It’s just Republican propaganda and fearmongering,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But the political challenges remain.

Many of the EV tax credits passed in the Inflation Reduction Act have gone to buyers in California and on the coasts, furthering the difficulty of selling the move in red states. Republicans and some Democrats have also argued that the Biden administration has been too permissive of China-made battery parts making up the vehicles, while Republicans plan to argue that lawmakers authorized billions in spending in the legislation without meaningfully lowering inflation.

Some liberal groups are arguing that Democrats should work harder to sell the benefits of the investment in EVs — including factories being built in red states — and explain to voters the economic benefits.

“The mistake for Democrats would be trying to run away from this and not owning the real achievements of the Inflation Reduction Act,” said Stevie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for liberal climate change group the Sunrise Movement. She said Democratic candidates should go on “offense” even in red states and explain the investments and jobs the legislation is leading to there.

O’Hanlon said that Republicans campaigned against the Green New Deal proposal in 2019, arguing that liberals wanted to take away people’s hamburgers, and it didn’t result in election-year gains. “This is the classic playbook from Big Oil,” she said.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) — who is running for that state’s open Senate seat and is facing heat for opposing a measure to halt efforts in states to limit gas-powered cars in the House in 2023 — has taken a more offensive tack. “I know Donald Trump has made electric vehicles his new ‘woke’ culture war,” she said in a statement after her vote. “Those vehicles are going to be made. And I am always going to pick Team America over Team China making those damn vehicles.”

But Trump’s constant demonization of the vehicles — “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL,” he wrote of EV supporters in a Truth Social post last Christmas — have only served to make EVs more unpopular among Republicans.

And adoption of EVs is not high in most red states. In Ohio for example, just around 3.25 percent of new vehicle purchases are electric vehicles, according to the Toledo Blade newspaper. In 2022, just 3,300 EVs were registered in the state of Montana, amounting to less than half a percentage point of all vehicles.

Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who is leading an effort to encourage more EV adoption among conservatives, says the gap between Democrats and Republicans on EVs is staggering. More than 61 percent of Democrats said they believed their friends would think it was a “smart move” if they bought an EV, compared to just 19 percent of Republicans who said the same in polling commissioned by Murphy.

“They marketed EVs as environmental, I’m-a-good-person-mobiles,” Murphy said, which alienated Republicans who tend to be more skeptical of climate change.

Murphy believes there’s an opportunity to change that trend in part by emphasizing the massive investment in swing states that are producing jobs. Michigan, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona have all announced tens of millions of dollars in EV investments, including $31.5 million in Georgia.

Blue state consumers are responsible for a disproportionate share of EV purchases, but these cars are increasingly being made in swing states.

“If the GOP wants to declare war on the largest source of new manufacturing jobs in the most important electoral states, they do so at their peril,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s fear is that a narrative solidifies after 2024 that running against EVs helped win the election, which he believes could roll back progress on the issue. “I don’t want Washington to decide the EV bashing worked.”

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