Virginia isn’t usually considered an energy state. But this year, the 2012 battleground is home to high-stakes political fights over the so-called war on coal, offshore drilling, and green jobs. And strategists from both parties say energy issues – particularly coal – could determine the state’s electoral results in November.
President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney – and the energy industries – will invest heavily in Virginia in the coming months.
Romney’s team sees in Virginia an opportunity to challenge Obama’s economic record by citing controversial coal regulations blamed by industry for killing jobs. The Interior Department’s decision last month to block new drilling off the Virginia coast – a move that puts the president at odds with many Virginia voters, including Democrats – also offers Romney an opening, his team believes.
While Obama won Virginia in 2008, his campaign recognizes just how difficult a repeat could be. And it’s counting on energy – not coal or drilling, but renewable energy – as a winning issue, especially in the state’s military communities.
“We are going to be actively campaigning in every part of the commonwealth, and we’re going to lean heavily into energy – it’s an important topic for us,” said Frank Benenati, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
Obama on Friday morning begins a two-day, five-city tour of the state. He’ll mostly talk about middle-class tax cuts, the campaign’s lead talking point this week. But campaign staffers from both parties say Obama’s visit precedes an intense push on energy and job issues.
“Coal is a big problem for Obama,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “It’s a much bigger issue this time around. As badly as they lost coal country in 2008, I suspect Romney is going to run up a lot more votes there this year.”
Sabato said there weren’t enough votes in the coal regions of Virginia to cost Obama the election statewide. But he cautioned, “You never can tell when you reach a tipping point.”
Obama’s reelection team appears to agree. While the president stands no chance of winning that part of the state, his campaign said he’ll need to preserve something close to the numbers he had in 2008 in order to carry the state.
That would mean approximating the roughly 40 percent of the vote Obama won in 2008 in Virginia’s ninth district, which encompasses most of the state’s rural southwest where coal mining is central to the economy and poverty rates are among the state’s highest.
He will try to maintain that level of support by telling voters there that Romney isn’t a true friend to coal. “While he now claims to support coal, Romney has been a critic of coal-fired power plants,” Benenati said, referring to a 2003 speech Romney gave in Massachusetts charging that coal power plants kill.
But Romney’s team and the coal industry are pushing hard to whittle away at what support for Obama remains in the southwest region. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the country’s biggest coal lobby, has been running an aggressive campaign there against Obama’s coal regulations, including radio ads and events at NASCAR races. The group has written a letter to the Roanoke Times, expected to be published Saturday, the same day the president makes his appearance in the city.
Last month, in an appearance in nearby Salem, Virginia, Romney criticized Obama’s "avalanche of new regulations" on the coal and oil industries. "He's made it harder to mine coal, harder to use coal, harder to get a reliable supply of natural gas, harder to get drilling for oil," Romney said.
And in Congress, the GOP-led House Energy and Commerce Committee will soon hold a field hearing in Abingdon, Va. – the heart of the state’s coal county – on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse-gas regulations on coal plants.
All of those efforts could be enough, strategists say, to help tip the balance in the GOP’s favor in November.
“On the western side of the state, coal is a major issue and a way of life,” said Dave Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. “Obama’s policies on that are a huge issue. There’s a lot of Democrats out there that voted for Obama in 2008 that aren’t going to do it again.”
OFFSHORE CHALLENGE TOO
Obama faces another tough challenge in Virginia over offshore drilling.
Along Virginia’s seaboard, support is growing to make the state the first on the East Coast to open up to offshore drilling – a push backed by the state’s Democratic representatives on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb. But last month, the Interior Department issued a five-year offshore-drilling plan that shut Virginia’s coast off to drilling.
Republicans intend to pounce on the difference between Obama’s policy and Virginia voters’ position. Romney’s first Virginia campaign ad referenced offshore drilling, promising that “by day 100, President Romney reverses Obama’s offshore-drilling ban, creating thousands of new jobs for Virginians.”
The oil industry has jumped in to help him. “The only high-level politician that’s out of sync on this in Virginia is the president,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s lobbying arm. (Gerard, a personal friend of Romney’s, has also been mentioned as a likely candidate to be chief of staff under a Romney administration).
API has launched a nationwide “Vote 4 Energy” campaign aimed at backing candidates who support increased drilling. In February, the group commissioned a poll which found that 80 percent of Virginians support new offshore drilling, and Gerard said the group plans to hold events in Virginia in the coming months.
OBAMA’S ENERGY ARGUMENT
The White House sees Virginia as one of the most promising places for renewable energy and green jobs due to the Navy's heavy presence in the state.
The naval facilities in Norfolk are at the head of an aggressive Pentagon push to expand renewable-energy use. And on Tuesday, with much fanfare, the Navy will launch its “Great Green Fleet” – battleships powered with renewable fuels and hybrid engines.
In the districts around Norfolk, which Obama won in 2008, support is high for the initiatives. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has been a consistent advocate on the issue and supporters say the Navy’s new initiatives could bring renewable energy jobs to Virginia’s coast.
But even here, Republicans – including the Romney campaign – have criticized Navy contracts to purchase biofuels that are more expensive than traditional fuels as the Pentagon prepares for spending cuts.
Speaking on Thursday to reporters on behalf of the Romney campaign, Former Navy Secretary John Lehman said, “If the president wants the taxpayer to subsidize alternative fuels, it shouldn’t be done on the Navy’s back.”