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The Street
The Street
Rob Lenihan

Elon Musk Embraces the Right, But Republicans Still Hate Electric Vehicles

Regge legend Bob Marley once said "everything is political" and electric vehicle supporters would surely agree.

While there's no disputing that EVs are becoming more popular, the journey to acceptance is running into some roadblocks, including GOP-sponsored legislation.

This political resistance might seem a bit surprising in light of Elon Musk's right-leaning views.

The Tesla (TSLA) CEO and self-described "Chief Twit" of Twitter has railed against "wokeism," backed Republicans in the last midterm elections, and indicated that his candidate for the 2024 presidential election is Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

Since completing the $44 billion acquisition of the social network on October 27, Musk has used the platform to, as he says, right the wrongs suffered by conservatives on Twitter, other social networks and in the mainstream media.

This includes allowing Donald Trump back on Twitter after the former president had been banned from the microblogging website following the January 6 insurrection.

And yet, despite Musk's political stance, some Republican legislators have shown little love for electric vehicles.

For example, last summer North Carolina Republican state representatives introduced a bill that would ban free public electric vehicle chargers unless free gas and diesel pump alternatives were also made available in the same space.

Rep. Mark Brody, who co-sponsored the Equitable Free Vehicle Fuel Stations Act, said that electric cars do not use gas, and in North Carolina, "the gas tax funds our roadways and maintenance."

Politicization of EVs 'to be Expected'

"So, in essence, they get free access and hold no responsibility for their upkeep," he said, adding that the bill died on the last day of the legislative session.

"I like Elon Musk but that does not exempt him or buyers of his vehicles from participating in the means to make it easier and safer to drive them on the roads," Brody said. "The concept is fairness, the solutions haven’t been formed yet."

Wyoming Republican lawmakers introduced a resolution earlier this month that expressed support for phasing out the sale of electric vehicles in the state by 2035.

Among other things, the legislation noted that phasing out EVs "will ensure the stability of Wyoming's oil and gas industry and will help preserve the country's critical minerals for vital purposes."

James King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming, said the motivations behind the resolution are "supporting one of the state's fossil fuels industries, in this instance, petroleum.

"Wyoming state legislators are interested in protecting a component of the state's economy, not whether they're ruffling the feathers of a supporter of Republican candidates elsewhere," King said.

Timothy Johnson, professor of the practice of energy and the environment at Duke University, said the "politicization of electric vehicles is to be expected."

"Although there are good reasons for switching from gasoline and diesel to electricity as a transportation 'fuel' that have nothing to do with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he said, "it is true that we would not see the policy or industry push for EVs that we do today were it not for environmental concerns."

As a result, Johnson said it is easy to "tag the transition to EVs as a liberal measure, and I suspect many early EV adopters were on the left side of the political spectrum."

Virginia Governor Makes Controversial Move

The Wyoming resolution also directed the secretary of state to send a copy of the document to the Governor of California.

California banned the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035 and several others states have either followed suit or are considering similar measures.

In 2021, then-Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed a bill that linked the commonwealth to California’s vehicle emission standards.

Virginia's current Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who many believe is eyeing a White House run, described the legislation as a "ridiculous edict" that "actually cedes control of decision-making for Virginians to California" and vowed to fight it.

Youngkin also halted plans for a $3.5 billion Ford (F) battery plant due to concerns about Chinese influence. The project entailed a partnership with a Chinese battery maker, Contemporary Amperex Technology, or CATL

Youngkin's office did not respond to a request for comment, but his spokesman told The Detroit News that "while Ford is an iconic American company, it became clear that this proposal would serve as a front for the Chinese Communist Party."

Ford said in a statement that  its talks with CATL were continuing and there was nothing new to announce.  

Democrats chastised Youngkin's actions, with Sen. Ghazala Hashmi telling The Richmond Times Dispatch that “the Governor’s decision to pull Virginia out of the competition for the new Ford facility puts the Commonwealth at a severe disadvantage.”

Shang-Jin Wei, a professor of economics at Columbia Business School, said that had CATL been a U.S. or European company, "it would have been celebrated as an example of the best type of entrepreneurship" and CEO Zeng Yuqun "would have been celebrated as an example of best businessmen in the likes of Steve Jobs or Henry Ford."

Consumer Behavior 'Real Test' for EVs

"Governor Youngkin’s attitude towards CATL is an example of the social costs of US-China geopolitical tensions that tend to exaggerate the national security risks of Chinese companies," he said. "It is unfortunate that this is likely to get worse in the U.S."

Wei said that the Chinese are not adopting the same attitude towards US firms in China yet, noting that there are far more U.S. firms operating in China than the other way around. 

"The risk ,though, is that this could change, especially as the investment climate in the U.S. becomes more hostile," he said. "Ordinary people and firms in both countries will suffer." 

So where is this all heading? 

Johnson believes that "more conservative politicians may try to use EVs much as some have used masks," which became a right wing rallying point during the height of the covid-19 outbreak.

"Any impact on EV sales or infrastructure development, however, is likely to be around the margin," he said, "and the real test will be consumer behavior as EV availability increases and costs decline, as well as the government's ability to distribute the billions of dollars in related funding already allocated to charging."

Once people experience the performance of an EV and realize the other benefits, Johnson added, "I would not be surprised if they became more mainstream, despite political rhetoric that may continue for some time."

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