What Mark Warner Could Learn From Terry McAuliffe

Do Obama's new environmental regulations put Mark Warner in a bind? Consider the fate of Terry McAuliffe.

Terry McAuliffe (L) and Sen. Mark Warner (R) at George Mason University in Arlington, VA. on May 9, 2013. (National Journal)

The Washington Times on Monday posted a lengthy piece on coal politics in Virginia, exploring whether President Obama's new environmental regulations affecting coal-fired power plants put Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat who's running for reelection, in a bind.

"Mr. Warner burnished his political credentials in part by forging inroads with voters in coal-mining towns in southwestern Virginia," writes the Times's S.A. Miller. "That support could be in jeopardy if his likely Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, convinces voters that Mr. Warner has helped wage the presidents' alleged 'war on coal.' "

But Warner no longer needs to cling to coal.

Now it's true that when Warner ran for governor in 2001, he built strong alliances in coal-mining towns in Southwestern Virginia. But the demographics have changed since then, and there are fewer coal voters now than ever. While Warner's surely eager to protect his centrist image and stay loyal to constituencies that helped him get ahead in the past, the piece may overstate how much danger he's actually in.

To get a sense of why, consider the fate of Terry McAuliffe, who faced a parallel situation when he ran for Virginia governor in 2013.

Obama had just rolled out his preliminary regulations for future coal-fired power plants, the step toward the regulations for existing coal-fired power plants he announced this week. While there were some key differences between them (including that the implementation of these initial power-plant regulations was much less devastating for the coal industry), the politics and dynamics were essentially the same.

That fall, McAuliffe voiced his support for Obama's existing power-plant regulations as inoffensively as possible. And his opponent Ken Cucinelli attacked him over it, much as Warner's opponent, Ed Gillespie, is attacking him now. Not only did McAuliffe win the gubernatorial election, he won with an 8 percent advantage on energy and environment issues. The takeaway: statewide voters, just last fall, voted for a mildly pro-regulation Democrat. Why wouldn't they do the same now?

This election season Warner finds himself in a position that's uncannily similar to McAuliffe's, trying to walk the line between pleasing the state's Democratic base and pleasing voters in the coal mining towns that helped elect him back in 2001. Setting aside questions of allegiance, the electoral politics are pretty straightforward: Democrats have little to lose in taking on coal.

Over at Slate, Dave Weigel has some great maps detailing why coal country doesn't have the political sway it used to (and what's true for Virginia here is true nationally as well). In particular, he notes that votes are down in coal-loving Dickenson county (where Warner opponent Ed Gillespie recently expressed his rage over the EPA's new regulations), dropping from 4,805 in 2001 to 3,433 in 2013. Vote counts in upscale areas like Loudoun County, meanwhile, are up.

So how much of a bellwether is Virginia? The state is somewhat uniquely positioned in the climate debate, with its Southwestern areas dependent on coal (the state ranks 14th in the country for coal production) and other parts like Norfolk threatened by the sea level-rise caused by climate change. Arguably the most covetous part of the electorate, however, are the swing voters in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, where people couldn't care less about coal.

That growing part of the electorate is a fairly good stand-in for what we're seeing around the country. And the takeaway is Dems lost coal votes a long time ago and with little consequence.