Cuccinelli’s struggles seem to stem largely from a complex legal case that pits big coal companies against local property owners over the extraction of gas from Virginia land. A lawyer in Cuccinelli’s office intervened on behalf of the companies, and McAuliffe has seized on that to cast the Republican as something other than the defender-of-the-little-guy he has claimed to be throughout this year’s contentious campaign.
Resulting polls, which show McAuliffe and Cuccinelli each capturing well under 50 percent of likely voters’ support in southwest Virginia, reveal a deep vein of economic pain running through a region that presents a study in contrast to the relative prosperity and employment levels of Northern Virginia.
But these voters’ easy suspicions also reveal a vulnerability for Republicans, who depend mightily on running up big winning margins among rural voters in a state where the more populous urban and suburban regions have been trending Democratic in most recent elections. If a Republican doesn’t win by a lot in rural Virginia, there are few other paths to victory.
‘I can’t trust him’
Aimee Compton is two months removed from her job in customer service for AT&T. The Lebanon native knows the coal industry’s woes are hurting southwest Virginia — “I’m struggling myself. I see people all over the place here struggling,” she says — but she’s fired up about something else.
“Whether I vote for an independent person or I vote for Terry McAuliffe, I know one thing: I am not voting for Ken Cuccinelli, because I can’t trust him,” Compton said.
That kind of sentiment has become surprisingly common this election year in a region that has stayed stubbornly red even as the rest of Virginia has tinged purple. Usually a fortress for Republicans that helps the party offset losses in the state’s richer, more moderate population centers — Richmond, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — coal country has not been kind to Democrats in recent elections, particularly President Obama.
Even as he won the commonwealth in 2012 for the second consecutive cycle, Obama was crushed in much of southwest Virginia. Republican Mitt Romney’s best performance in the state, 78 percent, came in southwest’s Tazewell County. In Wise County, Romney won 74 percent of the vote.
In 2009, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) did well nearly everywhere against state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) — but he was especially strong south and west of Bath and Rockbridge counties, taking 65 percent of the vote.