RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — It took Democrat Terry McAuliffe almost two weeks to affirm his support for new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal. Now, Republicans are counting on it to solidify support in rural Virginia for Ken Cuccinelli in a close governor's race.
McAuliffe told reporters Tuesday in northern Virginia that he supports the EPA regulations that limit carbon emissions that could come from gas- or coal-fired power plants in the future. The regulations could sharply reduce the demand for coal from mining regions such as southwestern Virginia.
Cuccinelli and fellow Republicans began hammering McAuliffe across rural Virginia on Wednesday.
It's an area, however, that rarely supports Democrats. Steve Jarding, a Harvard University political science professor and former Democratic consultant to both Mark R. Warner and Jim Webb, said it's unlikely there was little love lost there for McAuliffe over his support for the EPA regulations.
"I would guess that most people in that part of Virginia have already made up their minds, and it is not for Terry McAuliffe," Jarding said. "I'm sure Terry knows what his numbers are and that folks in coal country won't be with him anyway."
McAuliffe said four years ago in an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that he hoped never to see another coal-fired plant constructed in Virginia. In this year's campaign, he had softened his tone and refused to be pinned down on the issue, saying he would have to wait for the EPA's new fossil-fuel standards.
The EPA issued the regulations on Sept. 20. For 12 days, McAuliffe demurred in his responses, saying he was still reviewing the guidelines.
On Tuesday, a reporter pressed McAuliffe to say whether he supports the EPA guidelines "as they are written right now." McAuliffe replied, "I do. You bet. What I've looked at, I support what we need to do to protect our air and our water."
McAuliffe noted that the new regulations apply only to plants yet to be built, not existing ones, and said "we have to do everything we can to protect those jobs that we have in Virginia today and ... make sure none of the jobs we have in the energy sector are lost."
Campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said in an emailed statement McAuliffe supports "new energy technologies to allow the Commonwealth's energy economy to further grow and diversify while protecting existing jobs."
Coal is a political and cultural flashpoint in Virginia's western tip, a rugged and remote region known for its restless independent streak despite deep conservative values.
"Coal in Virginia, especially here, ... is not a commodity, it's a culture and we react to it the same way we react to other attacks on our guns and everything else," said David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Roanoke-based Democratic consultant who was quoted last month saying he was "pulling for Cuccinelli."
Three years ago, coal cost Democrat Rick Boucher the congressional seat from Virginia's "Fightin' 9th District" that he had held for 28 years. Boucher had been a rarity in politics, having concurrently enjoyed endorsements for most of his career from both labor — the United Mine Workers union — and the National Rifle Association.
Republican H. Morgan rose from relative obscurity with only one-third of the cash Boucher had raised and unseated him in 2010 over Boucher's support for "cap and trade" legislation, an unsuccessful bill that was intended to curb carbon gas emissions blamed for global warming.
Conservative groups friendly with Griffith's campaign hammered Boucher over the bill, part of President Barack Obama's energy platform, even though Boucher backed the measure at the behest of energy companies, not to spite them. Utilities were by far Boucher's chief donors.
Southwestern Virginia Republican Dels. Terry Kilgore and Israel O'Quinn, both of whom represent adjacent House districts abutting the Tennessee border, attacked McAuliffe at a Bristol news conference. Kilgore said the EPA regulations would not only hurt coal but boost electricity rates and amount to "attacks on the poor and middle income and people who already have trouble making ends meet."