Inside the Republican Attacks on Electric Vehicles

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The electric vehicle, a breakthrough achievement in automotive technology, has driven into this year’s presidential election, inflaming partisan fights that have come to define much of American culture.

One reason is that President Biden has made electric vehicles central to his strategy to combat climate change. This week, his administration announced the most ambitious climate regulation in the nation’s history: a measure designed to accelerate a transition toward electric vehicles and away from the gasoline-powered cars that are a major cause of global warming.

The political war over electric vehicles has been fueled by an incendiary mix of issues: technological change, the future of the oil and gas industry, concerns about competition from China and the American love of motorized muscle. And in the rural reaches of America, where few public charging stations exist, the notion of an all-electric future feels fanciful — another element to the urban-rural divide that underlies the nation’s polarization.

Mr. Biden’s opponent, former President Donald J. Trump, has for months escalated attacks on electric vehicles broadly and the new regulation in particular, falsely calling the rule a ban on gasoline-powered cars and claiming electric cars will “kill” America’s auto industry. He has called them an “assassination” of jobs. He has declared that the Biden administration “ordered a hit job on Michigan manufacturing” by encouraging the sales of electric cars.

Within minutes of this week’s announcement of the new rule, similar talking points — albeit not as violent — flooded the Republican ecosystem.

“The Biden administration is deciding for Americans which kind of cars they are allowed to buy, rent and drive,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, in remarks that were echoed across the Capitol and on Fox News. A Fox News headline falsely claimed “Biden mandates production of electric vehicles.”

In many ways, Mr. Biden’s new rules on auto pollution combine elements that conservatives love to hate: government regulations and the notion that Democrats want to force Americans to give up comforts in the name of the environment.

Over the years, Mr. Trump has sharpened Republican opposition to environmental rules by attacking everything from non-aerosol hair spray to low-flow toilets. He has bashed energy-efficient dishwashers, LED lightbulbs and falsely claimed that wind turbines cause cancer.

In pitching his E.V. policies to Americans, Mr. Biden has sought to present himself as a “car guy,” talking about his upbringing as the son of a car dealer and test driving a Ford-150 electric pickup truck to pronounce “This sucker’s quick!” He was the first president to join auto workers on the picket line.

Still, policy analysts say that Mr. Trump’s attacks on the government’s efforts to clean up cars are likely to resonate with voters.

“When you get into personal vehicles, you’re touching a huge portion of the United States,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “The majority of Americans have little or no familiarity with E.V.s. When you get into the question of what you drive, how you drive, how reliable it is and what it signifies about your identity — that’s where the culture wars come in.”

Especially potent is the false claim that the new rule is a “ban” on conventional cars, analysts said.

The E.P.A. regulation is not a ban. Rather, it requires carmakers to meet tough new average emissions limits across their entire product line, starting in model year 2027 and ramping up through 2032. Automakers could comply with the emissions caps by selling a mix of gasoline-burning cars, hybrids, E.V.s or other types of vehicles, such as cars powered by hydrogen.

The E.P.A. estimates that compliance with the rule would mean that by 2032, about 56 percent of new passenger vehicles sold would be electric and another 16 percent would be hybrids. Car companies that exceed the new restrictions could face substantial penalties. The new standards would not apply to the used car market.

Cars and other forms of transportation are, together, the largest single source of carbon emissions generated by the United States, pollution that is driving climate change and that helped to make 2023 the hottest year in recorded history.

The new limits on tailpipe emissions would avoid more than seven billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 30 years, according to the E.P.A. That’s the equivalent of removing a year’s worth of all the greenhouse gases generated by the United States, the country that has historically pumped the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It would also provide nearly $100 billion in annual net benefits to society, according to the agency, including $13 billion annually in public health benefits like avoided hospitalizations and fewer premature deaths thanks to improved air quality.

And it would save the average American driver about $6,000 in reduced fuel and maintenance over the life of a vehicle, the E.P.A. estimated.

The country’s major car companies have grudgingly accepted the new regulations, after winning some concessions from the administration, in the form of a more gradual compliance schedule that pushes back the most stringent requirements until after 2030.

“The future is electric,” said John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents 42 car companies that produce nearly all the new vehicles sold in the United States, in a statement this week. He said the rules “are mindful of the importance of choice to drivers and preserve their ability to choose the vehicle that’s right for them.”

But other industries that will be affected by the rule have launched attacks — particularly oil and gas companies that see the rise of electric vehicles as an existential threat.

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobbying organization, has begun what it says is a “seven figure” campaign of advertising, phone calls and text messages against what it calls “Biden’s E.P.A. car ban” in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, as well as in Ohio, Montana and the Washington, D.C., market.

Also fighting the rule are more than 4,000 of the country’s 18,000 car dealerships, which wrote to Mr. Biden urging him to “tap the brakes” on the rule. Auto dealers — business owners rooted in communities who directly interact with motorists as they choose what to drive — could be particularly persuasive to voters, analysts said.

“It’s really surprising that it just got rammed down our throats,” said Duane Wilkes, chief financial officer of the Berge Auto Group in Arizona, which owns six dealerships in Phoenix and Tucson that sell vehicles made by Toyota, Lexus, Ford, Volkswagen and Mazda.

“What we sell isn’t determined by us, it’s determined by the customer, what they really want to buy,” Mr. Wilkes said. “And the E.V.s are just sitting on the lots.”

In the Phoenix metro area, electric vehicles represented 11.6 percent of new car registrations last year. “It’s trying to get votes,” said Mr. Wilkes, who described himself as an independent voter. “It won’t get mine. They want to enforce a change I don’t think a typical American is ready for.”

He added, “We have skin in the game and this is a direct shot to our profitability and maybe even our existence in some cases.”

And yet, electric vehicles are the fastest-growing segment of the auto industry. Sales of electric vehicles, trucks and S.U.V.s hit a record last year, reaching 1.2 million for the first time, bringing the share of electric vehicles in the United States vehicle market to 8.5 percent of new auto registrations. While growth is slowing, this year is expected to set another record, analysts have said.

But the boom is not happening everywhere. In California, which leads the nation in terms of the number of charging stations, 40 percent of new cars registered in San Jose last year were electric. But in Detroit, the country’s automobile capital, they accounted for only 3 percent and even less in Buffalo and Bismark, N.D.

Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist and energy lobbyist who worked in the Trump White House, said Republican polling has found attacking electric vehicle mandates to be an “amazing” issue for the party. He called Mr. Biden’s regulation a “shadow ban” on gas-powered vehicles. “If you make something unavailable it’s the same as banning it,” he said.

“It’s a solid second tier issue, with a special salience in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio for obvious reasons,” Mr. McKenna said, referring to swing states that Mr. Biden is hoping to win. “Are people going to vote on it? Probably it’s not going to be their main driver. But is it going to be a secondary confirmation thing? Yes.”

Stefan Hankin, a Democratic strategist and founder of Lincoln Park Strategies, who has warned the party about “pushing voters too hard” on electric vehicles, said he believes the car rule will help Mr. Biden.

“It’s not a ban, and that’s encouraging,” Mr. Hankin said, adding that the rule “sends a signal to environmentally-minded voters and younger voters, which the Biden campaign is definitely interested in.”

A 2023 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found half of American adults, and 70 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican, said they were not likely to consider purchasing an electric vehicle as their next car. In the same poll, 56 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic said they would consider buying an E.V.

Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican operative, saw the same partisan split in a November poll conducted by the EV Politics Project, an advocacy group he founded.

“It’s a tribal issue,” said Mr. Murphy, who has worked for Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other moderate Republicans. Mr. Murphy, a fan of electric vehicles, founded the EV Politics Project to try to get Republicans to stop bashing them — a lonely struggle.

“If you can’t crack the Republican problem there is no way you can get to these targets,” Mr. Murphy said, referring to the E.P.A.’s emission goals. “They are going to run out of Democrats.”

Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, which accounts for half of electric vehicle sales in the United States, has aligned himself with many hard-right views, leading analysts to wonder whether he could change conservative attitudes about the cars. “He could soften up the Republican opposition if he chose to,” Mr. Murphy said. But there is little evidence that is happening.

Republicans and Mr. Trump have argued electric vehicles help China, America’s economic rival, because minerals critical to battery manufacturing like graphite and manganese often originate in China.

Mr. Trump’s opposition to electric vehicles has created a dilemma for political leaders in several Republican-led states where new electric vehicle and battery plants are being built, thanks to federal incentives overseen by the Biden administration.

Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, was asked about that quandary during a ceremony in February to mark the construction of a $2 billion plant to manufacture electric pickups and off-road vehicles under the Scout brand. The factory is expected to create as many as 4,000 jobs.

Gov. McMaster insisted that Mr. Trump is not against electric vehicles.

“What President Trump is opposed to, as most people are, are mandates — federal mandates,” Gov. McMaster told reporters. “We do understand electric vehicles are a part of the future of South Carolina. We’re following the market.”

The political and social messages that consumers absorb about E.V.s could significantly shape the success of the new regulation, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for the Auto Intelligence service at S & P Global Mobility. That’s because the rule depends so heavily on whether motorists buy the cleaner cars.

“That is part of the wild card about consumers,” said Ms. Brinley. “It’s an emotional thing. It’s reflective of the either/or mentality that dominates social media. It could have an impact on how fast or how slow this transition goes.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.



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