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
Lucia Graves
June 4, 2014, 9:55 a.m.

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.

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