The Virginia governor’s race is the next front in the escalating war over global warming.
The leading Republican candidate, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is an unapologetically partisan firebrand who has drawn the national spotlight for his crusade against the science of climate change. He launched a two-year investigation of University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann—which the Virginia Supreme Court eventually shut down. He has sued to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the fossil-fuel pollution that causes global warming. In his new book, The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty, Cuccinelli ramped up his attack on EPA’s climate rules, warning that they’ll slow the U.S. economy and force Americans to live in a future of brownouts and endless gas-station lines.
His likely opponent, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, is planning to attack Cuccinelli for his hard-right views on climate change as part of a broader effort to paint the Republican as an extremist on a range of hot-button issues, including abortion, gay rights, and immigration, the McAuliffe campaign says.
But Cuccinelli’s climate crusade, in particular, will resonate with his party’s base nationally as well as with conservative Virginians. The race is kicking into gear just as President Obama declared, in his State of the Union and inaugural speeches, that he plans to aggressively fight climate change—a cause the president sees as a legacy issue. And Obama’s climate agenda is almost certain to lead to more of the EPA regulations that Cuccinelli has warred against.
That clash of views will erupt this year in a purple state that’s become a crucial battleground in presidential politics. Environmentalists and the coal industry expect to invest heavily to influence the race. Green groups will train their fire on Cuccinelli in hopes of sending a message to the Republican Party that denying climate change could cost them elections.
“Cuccinelli is one of the most high-profile climate deniers in the country, and it’s an opportunity to put that extreme view to the question,” said Navin Nayak, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, which raised $14 million to back pro-environment candidates in the 2012 elections. “People in D.C. will feel the ripple effects of this race, and we want to make sure they see being a climate denier is really bad politics.”
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a powerful Washington organization that lobbies for the interests of the coal industry and which spent heavily to support Republican candidates last year, is keying its sponsorship of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the contest. Earnhardt races later this year in Richmond, “where I expect we will be heavily recruiting supporters to our Power Army,” wrote the coal group’s spokeswoman, Lisa Camooso Miller, in an e-mail, referencing the group’s thousands of volunteers who fan out to do everything from pressing candidates on energy policy at town-hall meetings to waving pro-coal signs at campaign rallies.
The battle will play out across a landscape that is a concentrated microcosm of the environmental and economic dilemmas facing policymakers. Virginia’s Eastern Shore is among the regions most vulnerable to severe physical and economic disruption from climate change. Several scientific studies have named Norfolk as one of the three U.S. cities most at risk of damage from extreme storms and flooding exacerbated by climate change. A study of the impact of global warming on the coastal region of Hampton Roads, home to the world’s largest naval base, the only U.S. shipyard that builds nuclear submarines, and the tourist mecca of Virginia Beach, found that rising sea levels could wreak up to $25 billion of economic havoc over time.
But in the state’s poor and rural Appalachian south and west, where coal mining is a cornerstone of the economy, EPA rules curbing coal burning could deliver an economic wallop. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest U.S. source of the greenhouse-gas pollution that causes global warming. There’s no question that Cuccinelli’s stance will play well there. However, appealing to that small portion of the state—which Mitt Romney did in 2012—won’t be enough to win the Governor’s Mansion. The majority of Virginia’s voters live in the Tidewater region, Richmond, and the moderate-to-liberal enclave of Northern Virginia.
Still, Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, said Cuccinelli could have better luck with an anti-EPA message than Romney did. “This is something that excites Cuccinelli’s constituency. It wouldn’t play well in a presidential year,” he says, “but in non-presidential years, turnout is low, and conservatives have done quite well.” But Sabato added, “Maybe that’s changing because of what’s happening in Norfolk…. Maybe this will be the watershed election where this becomes a major issue, at least for Tidewater.”
Meanwhile, Cuccinelli’s other hard-right views are causing quiet heartburn among some in his party, prompting speculation that another, more moderate Republican—Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling—could run. He has declined to endorse Cuccinelli and is openly considering an independent bid. And another leading Virginia Republican is remaining noncommittal in the race: retired Sen. John Warner. Before leaving the Senate in 2009, the former Navy secretary coauthored major bipartisan legislation to tackle global warming, telling colleagues that as a military man he viewed climate change as a pressing national security threat.
Warner is disappointed in the political debate over the issue. “I think climate change will reemerge. But the words ‘climate change’ are not in the political vocabulary, unfortunately,” he said in an interview. As for whom he will support for governor, he said, “There comes a time when you ought to step out. In this case, it will come down to how I vote.”
This article appears in the March 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as Hothouse.