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Young Climate Voters Could Tilt Georgia’s Runoff Election for Senate

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If Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock wants to win next month’s Senate runoff election, he should lean into climate policy, exit polling suggests.

In his first matchup against Republican Herschel Walker—in which neither candidate cracked 50 percent, leading to the Dec. 6 runoff—Warnock attracted significant support from young people, the voting bloc most likely to be concerned about climate change.

That’s according to post-election research from Tufts University. And it’s part of a national trend that shows voters younger than 30 helped turn the tide for Democrats in key swing states and blunt an expected Republican wave in the midterm elections.

“Youth are increasing their electoral participation, leading movements, and making their voices heard on key issues that affect their communities,” according to analysis from Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Overall, 27 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 turned out for the midterms, the second-highest percentage on record, according to the Tufts University data. But that number rose to 31 percent in key swing states including Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—and Georgia.

Warnock won 49.4 percent of the overall vote in this month’s midterm elections, compared to 48.5 percent for Walker. Georgia election rules require a runoff if no candidate breaks the 50 percent threshold.

Young Georgians accounted for 116,000 votes of Warnock’s total share, according to Tufts. That’s almost three times the margin of his edge over Walker.

In Georgia, young voters were about 13 percent of the electorate, higher than any other swing state won by Democrats, Tufts found. They voted for Warnock over Walker by about 2 to 1.

Young people are more likely than any other voting bloc to be concerned about climate policy, polling has long shown.

“To move any young person out of their apartment and into the voting booth, the candidate has to be relying on issues related to climate change; I think it’s just kind of table stakes,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”

The Tufts analysis found that more than 8 in 10 young midterm voters said climate was a very serious or somewhat serious issue.

In Georgia, young voters—especially voters of color—are highly motivated by climate policy, said Sara Suzuki, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts who helped analyze the results.

“Not running on climate more seriously is a missed opportunity,” she said. “Communities of color are feeling climate issues more acutely, and that helps explain why young people of color are really prioritizing climate as an issue.”

In the Georgia Senate race, the two candidates are on the opposite ends of the climate policy spectrum.

Climate and clean energy policy already is proving to be a jobs creator. Last month, Hyundai opened a $5.5 billion electric-vehicle and battery plant in Georgia that will create 8,000 jobs. Georgia is also ranked seventh in the country for solar installation, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Warnock attended the groundbreaking for the plant in Savannah, alongside Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. He told reporters that climate policy is a “moral issue” and then touted his green credentials.

“I’ve also put forward a lot of legislation focused on creating a green energy future, everything from electric vehicles to electric batteries being manufactured in the state to investing in solar manufacturing,” he said.

By contrast, Walker said last week that the United States isn’t ready for more renewable energy.

“We’re not prepared, we’re not ready right now,” he said. “What we need to do is keep having those gas-guzzling cars. We got the good emissions under those cars.”

It will take another few weeks before more comprehensive exit polling data is finished, but the early midterm results show climate was a motivating factor for many voters.

The Associated Press VoteCast found that inflation and the economy dominated voter concerns—and that about half of voters said it was their top concern. No other issue came close, but about 10 percent of voters listed other issues as their top concern, including climate, abortion, health care and gun policy.

Young voters had the second-highest rate of voting in any midterm, second only to the 2018 midterms during former President Donald Trump’s term.

In fact, Generation Z and millennial voters under 30 voted in such a large number that they canceled out every voter 65 and older, according to Della Volpe, who has overseen Harvard’s youth polling since 2000. That effectively decided the fate of the election because young people overwhelmingly voted in favor of Democrats, at 63 percent, with 35 percent voting for Republicans, he found.

Millennials and members of the Z generation have now delivered three elections in a row for Democrats, he said. By 2024, they will account for nearly 40 percent of votes, Della Volpe noted.

Young voters want to support candidates who share their values and who acknowledge that climate change presents significant challenges to their generation. “If a candidate’s position does not align with climate science, does not align with a young person’s perspective, I’m not sure there is anything that candidate can do to win that voter’s support. It’s essential,” Della Volpe said.

There was evidence of the power of the youth vote in races across the country, particularly in the closest races.

In the Arizona governor’s race, Democrat Katie Hobbs eked out a narrow victory of about 20,000 votes over Republican Kari Lake. Young voters accounted for about 60,000 votes in the state, according to Tufts’ estimates.

In Nevada, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won reelection over Republican Adam Laxalt, securing Democratic control of the Senate by 9,000 votes. Young people accounted for a net 28,000 votes, Tufts found.

In Pennsylvania and Arizona, young voters overwhelmingly voted for the Democrats. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) received 70 percent of their vote, compared to Republican Mehmet Oz’s 28 percent. In Arizona, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly received 76 percent of the young vote, compared to the 20 percent received by Republican Blake Masters.

For a long time, young voters have been counted out, said Jack Lobel, deputy communications director for Voters of Tomorrow, a youth voting organization. But Democrats have made tangible progress on a number of their issues in the last two years, he said. Passing a major climate bill and working to protect abortion rights while addressing student loan debt motivated young people to go vote.

“Clearly, the will of young voters was to elect people who are thinking about our future, and I think that’s especially apparent on issues of climate change,” he said. “President Biden definitely moved the needle with voters on the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s a symbol that he’s fighting for us.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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