Energy issues reverberate across Virginia's political landscape

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; B01

From Fairfax County to Martinsville, Virginia's most competitive congressional races are increasingly focused on the same issue -- energy. But that's where the similarities end.

In the moderate Washington suburbs, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) is attacking his opponent, Oakton businessman Keith Fimian (R), for his continued pro-drilling stance in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. In conservative southwest Virginia, state House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) is accusing Rep. Rick Boucher (D) of supporting policies that would result in "losing coal jobs and higher electric rates."

In Hampton Roads, each party is charging the other's candidate with being fatally compromised by his ties to BP. And the question of whether to drill off Virginia's coast has grown more contentious by the day.

This week marks the anniversary of the House's passage of President Obama's carbon cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and with oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, energy issues are reverberating across Virginia's political landscape.

The debate is playing out differently in the state's four high-profile House contests. In addition to Connolly and Boucher, freshman Democratic Reps. Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello are also wrestling with energy issues in their reelection fights.

Nye voted against the Democrats' energy bill in June 2009, while Boucher, Connolly and Perriello voted for it.

Perriello has defended his vote by saying the bill could help make his district "the future energy capital of Virginia," and he has since touted his role in steering federal money to local alternative energy projects. In explaining his vote, Boucher also cited the bill's support for clean-energy jobs while noting that he helped to make the measure more coal-friendly in the drafting process.

Now, with the BP spill spurring Obama and some Democrats to make a renewed push for energy legislation, Republicans are reviving the same charge they leveled a year ago: Democrats' plans would hurt coal-producing regions such as Boucher's 9th District.

"Attacking the coal industry will not clean the beaches or save the wildlife," Griffith said Tuesday. "The Gulf Coast will not be helped, while electric rates skyrocket and southwestern Virginia jobs are lost."

In the 11th District, Fimian has been critical for months of what he calls the "Pelosi-Connolly Cap-and-Trade Plan," saying that it would "destroy jobs [and] increase gas prices."

But while attacks on the energy bill persist, the BP spill has given Democrats an opportunity to play offense.

The Connolly campaign posted an online video Monday that intersperses grainy footage of Fimian with Sarah Palin saying, "Drill, baby, drill!" and images of oil-soaked birds foundering on Gulf Coast beaches.

The question of opening Virginia's coast to offshore drilling has become exponentially more complicated for the state's leaders since the gulf spill. When Obama announced in May that he was halting plans to drill offshore, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and James Webb agreed that the sale of leases should be delayed, although both have been past supporters of drilling. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said Obama's decision was a mistake.

In congressional races, candidates have walked a fine line on the drilling issue.

State Sen. Robert Hurt (R-Pittsylvania), who is challenging Perriello in the 5th District, agrees with McDonnell and supports "safe and responsible offshore drilling," according to his campaign manager.

Perriello, for his part, has supported drilling in the past under certain safety conditions but thought that Obama's move was "an appropriate response," his spokeswoman said.

In the 2nd District, which includes Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore, Nye opponent Scott Rigell (R) said that "offshore energy exploration should continue, but only after we have absolute confidence that we have the systems, equipment and contingency plans to fully safeguard human life and our environment."

Nye is less vulnerable to some GOP charges on energy because he opposed the cap-and-trade bill. But the National Republican Congressional Committee engaged him on a different front last week, attacking him for holding a fundraiser co-hosted by a lobbyist who represents BP. (The BP lobbyist represents several other clients and was one of 17 hosts of the Nye event.)

In similarly tangential fashion, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sought to link Rigell to Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), who drew opprobrium last week for apologizing to BP and then hastily retracted his comments.

Rigell's alleged sin? He was "silent" during the Barton controversy. A DCCC release declared, "It's past time that Scott Rigell come forward, apologize and make clear that he and his group are ready to stand up to Big Oil and not for Big Oil."

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