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In Obama's Backyard, a Climate Change Battle in Virginia Next Year

With Virginia's climate skeptic attorney general seeking the governor's seat and fossil fuel money pouring in, familiar battle lines are being drawn.

Dec 12, 2012
(Page 2 of 3 )
Virginia's Republican attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli, speaks at the 2012 L

Cuccinelli's team did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did the Virginia Tea Party Alliance nor the Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a powerful Tea Party-aligned group backed partly by the Koch brothers.

Prominent conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which question climate science and have received Koch and other industry money, said they couldn't comment on the race because their tax status prevents them from endorsing or opposing candidates.

What Will Enviros Do?

Cuccinelli's opponent, McAuliffe, accepts that human activity is causing climate change, according to his press secretary Josh Schwerin. McAuliffe ran for governor in 2009, but lost his party's nomination. Like Cuccinelli, he's now running unopposed for the nomination. 

McAuliffe, 55, served as co-chairman of Bill Clinton's re-election campaign and chairman for Hillary Clinton's presidential run in 2008, but he's largely known for his business career in banking and real estate.

Schwerin said McAuliffe will run on a jobs platform that will mainly focus on building a clean energy economy "to help spur economic growth in Virginia and address climate change." Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli support plans to develop wind energy off Virgina's coast—though neither have released detailed energy platforms. McAuliffe is founder and chairman of GreenTech Automotive, a developer of electric and hybrid vehicles.

McAuliffe's campaign would not disclose its contributions. The amounts aren't yet available on the website of the Virginia Public Access Project, likely because McAuliffe hasn't received any donations over $10,000, the threshold at which a candidate must immediately report funds.

Several local and national environmental groups interviewed by InsideClimate News said they'll attempt to sway the election in McAuliffe's favor and are currently formulating their strategies.

One option, they said, is to use the playbook of the national LCV, which targeted 12 anti-clean energy candidates in the general elections and helped defeat 11 of them using TV advertising and voter registration.

"A very effective ground game won over big spending," Guthrie of the Virginia LCV said. The national LCV spent about $14 million on its 2012 campaign efforts. The Koch brothers and Koch-affiliated organizations spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the elections, according to reports.

For the governor's race, one of the biggest activities by environmental groups will be voter turnout work, Guthrie said. Participation in the 2009 gubernatorial election in Virginia was only 39.8 percent.

The Sierra Club expects to mobilize thousands of its supporters in the state and possibly run targeted ad campaigns, according to Courtney Hight, the group's deputy political director.

"The same big polluters who spent hundreds of millions failing to buy their way into the Senate and the White House in 2012 are likely to support Ken Cuccinelli in 2013," Hight said in an email. "We will fight them every step of the way."

Beth Kemler, the Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a grassroots nonprofit in the region, said her group is putting together a clean energy agenda that candidates can use to build their platforms. The group also plans to get its volunteers to ask energy-related questions at campaign stops "so the candidates get a sense that there are people all over the Commonwealth that care about climate and clean energy," Kemler said. It's also considering raising money for a clean energy ad blitz.

The Frontline of Warming

Navin Nayak, senior vice president of campaigns for the national LCV, said the fact that Virginia residents have had to deal firsthand with the consequences of climate change in recent years could sway voters.

Twenty-eight heat records were broken in Virginia last year. Sea levels off the coast are rising a quarter of an inch annually, faster than anywhere else in the United States, except off Louisiana, according to federal science data. Already, low-lying coastal towns frequently flood after minor storms.

If historical patterns are any guide, however, Cuccinelli will win the governor's seat next November. Since 1977, whichever political party lost the presidential race won the governor seat the following year.

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