America Is the Next Virginia

Often held up as a bellwether for red states shifting blue, Virginia's as good a test case as any for the changing politics of coal.

National Journal

No sooner did word spread that President Obama would use his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from the country's coal-fired power plants than the politicking began.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a scathing report. The Environmental Protection Agency fired back. Politico documented the spat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

With Obamacare's woes apparently solved for the moment, and the Benghazi scandal feeling increasingly abstruse, conservatives are looking for a new point of conflagration in the run-up to elections this fall — and the new EPA regulations on carbon emissions from existing power plants, to be released on Monday, look like promising fodder.

The new climate regulations, as New York magazine's Jonathan Chait observed, offer few obvious tangible selling points for Democrats. Instead, the regulations could mean the loss of jobs and the decimation of whole towns where livelihoods depend on the coal industry, as well as higher energy costs for average Americans. Republicans hope to make these consequences an albatross around Democrats' necks this year.

And yet there's good reason to think the doomsday electoral predictions are wrong — that Obama's coal-fired power-plant regulations, while he's painted them as a "moral obligation," are not in fact some sort of political hara-kiri ahead of elections in 2014. To understand why, consider the Virginia governor's race.

While its reliance on coal for power generation is lower than some other states, Virginia ranks 14th in the country for coal production. And the surrounding coal industry has traditionally played no small role in shaping the state's political landscape. That's changing though, and last year's governor's race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli shows why.

The backdrop should sound familiar: In September of 2013, Obama had just rolled out a separate preliminary regulation restricting greenhouse-gas emissions for future coal-fired power plants. The backlash from the coal industry was intense, and Cuccinelli was quick use it to his advantage.

"Barack Obama's war on coal is intensifying," said a voice one Cuccinelli attack ad. "McAuliffe would side with Obama and kill Virginia coal, Virginia jobs."

McAuliffe responded by doubling down on his environmental positions. He supported the regulations, while being careful to not appear overly antagonistic toward coal. "Virginia needs to seize the opportunity to develop and deploy cleaner energy technologies that will grow our economy while protecting our environment," he wrote in a Politico op-ed. "Just as limits were previously set on mercury, arsenic, and lead pollution, it's time to place commonsense limits on carbon pollution. And Virginians agree with me."

And so they did. Not only did McAuliffe win, but he won on environmental issues. In a Washington Post poll published in the days leading up to the election, he held an 8-point lead on energy and environmental issues specifically.

So how did a guy whose third-largest donor was the League of Conservation Voters (and whose fourth-largest was Tom Steyer), win in a coal state? Virginia has a bit of a complicated relationship with climate politics — Norfolk, in particular, is among the U.S. cities most threatened by sea-level rise, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And McAuliffe's statewide ad campaign targeting his opponent's climate-change denial did not fall on deaf ears. Neither did his full-throated defense of noted climate scientist Michael Mann, then at the University of Virginia.

Of course, the situation for national Democrats isn't completely analogous to what McAuliffe experienced. Obama's expected carbon announcement doesn't just concern future power plants: It will have very real consequences for existing ones. And his pledge to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent could eventually shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants around the country.

But it's also, as one Democratic strategist noted to The Washington Post's Greg Sargent, an opportunity for Democrats to draw a contrast with a president who's widely unpopular right now. "I'm not sure at the end of the day whether people in those states are likely to say, 'This shows Democrats are trying to screw us,' or, 'I'm glad my Democrat is standing up for me, and he will do other valuable things.' Where this really nets out is hard to know. But we've been dealing with the basic thematics here for a long time."

Meanwhile, McAuliffe's success shows that embracing climate regulations could be a winner for other Democrats, too.