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
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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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