An Awkward Day to Be Terry McAuliffe

Obama’s new carbon controls put this Virginia Democrat in a political pickle.

Terry McAuliffe speaks during the unveiling of GreenTech Automotive's new electric MyCar at their manufacturing facility in Horn Lake, Miss.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
Sept. 20, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

It’s dif­fi­cult day for Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Terry McAul­iffe. That’s be­cause the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Fri­day an­nounced its land­mark power-plant reg­u­la­tions, set­ting strict lim­its on how much green­house-gas pol­lu­tion can be gen­er­ated by any fu­ture plant and in­stantly spark­ing back­lash from the coal in­dustry.

The state’s south­w­est is coal-min­ing coun­try, and many Vir­gini­ans rely on coal plants to keep the lights on. While Demo­crats in oth­er coal states have dis­tanced them­selves from the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s an­nounce­ment, so far McAul­iffe has been mostly keep­ing quiet. Don’t be fooled though. As Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Cor­al Dav­en­port re­por­ted, this is an ex­tremely im­port­ant if un­com­fort­able time for the Old Domin­ion Demo­crat.

Vir­gin­ia has a com­plic­ated re­la­tion­ship with cli­mate polit­ics, and those pri­or­it­ies are ap­par­ent in McAul­iffe’s own con­flic­tions. While he’s walked a care­ful line on coal, voicing his sup­port for a “clean coal” solu­tion, McAul­iffe has been out­spoken in his broad­er cli­mate polit­ics, cri­ti­ciz­ing op­pon­ent Ken Cuc­cinelli for his cli­mate deni­al and not­ing in par­tic­u­lar Cuc­cinelli’s at­tack on the cli­mate sci­ent­ist Mi­chael Mann.

That’s a brave move in Vir­gin­ia, giv­en its iden­tity as a coal state, and en­vir­on­ment­al groups like the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters have been cam­paign­ing ag­gress­ively on his be­half.

Cuc­cinelli has been quick to pounce on the ten­sion in McAul­iffe’s po­s­i­tion. “The needs of our job cre­at­ors and fam­il­ies are much more im­port­ant than spe­cial-in­terest groups and rad­ic­al en­vir­on­ment­al­ists,” Cuc­cinelli wrote in a state­ment mo­ments after Obama’s new reg­u­la­tions were an­nounced. “It’s dis­ap­point­ing that the pres­id­ent and Terry McAul­iffe either don’t un­der­stand that or don’t seem to care.”

But Cuc­cinelli may be vul­ner­able on cli­mate is­sues, too. Obama’s pro­posed reg­u­la­tions have strong pub­lic back­ing, par­tic­u­larly from young people around the coun­try. And cli­mate change could have a tre­mend­ous im­pact on Vir­gin­ia’s coastal areas. Nor­folk, in par­tic­u­lar, is lis­ted as one of the U.S. cit­ies most threatened by sea-level rise ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey. Cuc­cinelli has act­ively ducked ques­tions about wheth­er he ac­cepts the sci­ence be­hind hu­man-caused glob­al warm­ing, ef­fect­ively stone­walling re­port­ers who pressed the ques­tion a few weeks ago.

McAul­iffe’s cam­paign broke its ra­dio si­lence Fri­day, re­leas­ing a cau­tious state­ment say­ing, “He looks for­ward to fur­ther re­view­ing the pres­id­ent’s pro­posed rules.” Even that’s im­press­ive for a Demo­crat from Ap­palachia. Three years ago, such politi­cians were all run­ning away from Obama’s re­cord on coal as if their polit­ic­al lives de­pend on it.

In some cases, they did. Former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Rick Bouch­er was booted from of­fice in 2010 simply for back­ing the 2009 cli­mate-change bill and even though he suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­ated sig­ni­fic­ant carve-outs for the coal in­dustry.

If McAul­iffe can walk the line as an en­vir­on­ment­al­ist can­did­ate for gov­ernor, we may be see­ing a big shift in Vir­gin­ia and bey­ond.

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