WISE, Va. — Amid the struggling businesses and flattened mountaintops strip-mined decades ago, antipathy toward Democrats and what’s known in this region as their “war on coal” is stronger than just about anywhere else in the country.
That has translated naturally into broad opposition to Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor this year. But across the coal fields of far-southwest Virginia, something unusual is also happening: Voters don’t like the Republican candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, much better.
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.
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.
Cuccinelli is falling well short of that pace in most recent polls.
In a Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll conducted in mid-September, the Republican took 33 percent of registered voters in southwest Virginia, while McAuliffe drew 31 percent.
In a region that remains hostile to Democrats, however, the biggest beneficiary of the uncertainty about Cuccinelli appears to be Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who earned 21 percent in the poll.
Sarvis’s performance in southwest Virginia is far stronger than in the governor’s race overall, in which he took 10 percent statewide in the Post-SRBI survey. The Libertarian appears to be pulling the bulk of his votes from Cuccinelli, although some surveys suggest that Sarvis’s support is soft and that many of his backers may change their mind Nov. 5 — or stay home.
At issue for Cuccinelli is a complex case involving a lawyer in his office accused of inappropriately helping energy companies in a long-running legal fight with landowners over gas royalties.
For several years, property owners in southwest Virginia have tussled with energy companies over who owns the rights to the methane gas under their property.
The battle entered the governor’s race in June, when a federal judge criticized a lawyer in the attorney general’s office for providing legal advice to energy companies in the lawsuit. One of the energy companies, Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy, has given $111,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign.
The state inspector general issued a report this month saying Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon “inappropriately” used state resources to give the companies legal help. The inspector general found no evidence that Cuccinelli knew about or approved Pigeon’s actions.
Cuccinelli has said he did nothing wrong, and Republicans noted that he pushed a bill in 2011 — opposed by energy companies — that would have tried to resolve the gas rights issue. The measure never came to a vote in the state Senate or House of Delegates.
But the issue is prompting a more visceral response from voters whose fortunes have been battered for years by the decline of the coal industry. And it may be undermining a central theme of Cuccinelli’s pitch: a promise to defend the have-nots, particularly in coal-friendly southwest Virginia.
“I don’t think the man ought to get elected by somebody that’s paying him. To me, that’s not good politics,” said Eddie Fletcher, a disabled former construction and coal worker from Rowe who is particularly bothered by Consol’s donations to Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe has been unrelenting in attacking Cuccinelli on the subject, running ads featuring southwest landowners who say Cuccinelli “cannot be trusted.”
Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire and environmental activist from San Francisco, also has gotten in on the act. His super PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee, has spent more than $1.3 million statewide on ads attacking Cuccinelli’s ethics, many of them over the gas royalties issue.
Steyer has also funded Virginians for Clean Government, a coalition of southwest residents who have been working to draw attention to the royalties case. (Compton has served as an unpaid volunteer for the group.)
By one measure, McAuliffe’s and others’ TV campaigns have made southwest Virginia the ground zero of this year’s political advertising war.
Through Sunday, according to the tracking firm Kantar Media, campaign spots had aired more than 13,000 times in the Roanoke market and tri-cities market in Virginia and Tennessee, which covers the state’s southwestern tip. That puts the combined region ahead of Richmond, Norfolk and Washington. Far less money has been spent in southwest Virginia because the cost of airtime is so much cheaper.
Unlike in the District suburbs, where much of the rhetoric on the airwaves is about abortion and endorsements from business groups, the fight in southwest Virginia has focused mostly on one topic — energy.
Cuccinelli has hardly been silent in southwest Virginia, making frequent visits and promising that he’ll oppose federal regulations limiting carbon emissions. And despite his under-performance, it’s not hard to tap into the region’s hostility to Democrats.
Worley Smith, for instance, is sure that he’s voting for Cuccinelli.
It’s been 16 months since Smith was laid off from his job as a heavy-equipment operator for a coal company. The industry is bleeding jobs, and he hasn’t had luck finding road-building work either, because “nobody’s got no money right now. Taxes are down. Economy’s down. . . . Everybody’s hurting.”
Smith’s wife has a job, the kids are grown and their house is paid off, so he knows he’s luckier than some others in Wise, his home town. But at 52 — after 32 years working in coal — he’s not sure what to do next.
“When a man says he doesn’t want a coal-powered plant built, and then turns around and says he’s for coal, I just don’t buy it,” Smith said of McAuliffe in a recent interview.
McAuliffe first caught the eye of coal country during his failed 2009 bid for governor, when he said during a Democratic primary debate: “We have got to move past coal. As governor, I never want another coal plant built.”
He has been more circumspect this time around. “I will protect each and every one of your jobs. You have my word on that,” McAuliffe told the crowd at a United Mine Workers picnic in Castlewood this month, according to the Bristol Herald Courier.
But McAuliffe has also — after initially avoiding a position — come out in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules restricting pollution from future coal- and gas-fired plants. (McAuliffe has noted that the rules would apply only to new coal plants, and there are none slated for construction soon in the region.)
For Bill Bevins, that’s reason enough to oppose the Democrat.
“He’s an Obamanaut, and he’s not going to do anything to possibly help us,” said Bevins, a Republican. “He’s not going to do anything to resist the EPA regulations. Cuccinelli is at least going to give us a fighting chance.”
Bevins, 63, owns Quality Car Wash, which sits atop a flattened Wise County mountaintop that was strip-mined a quarter-century ago. Many of the washing bays sat empty on a recent afternoon.
“A big part of my business was coal miners going to work and coming in and washing their vehicles, and now they don’t have a job so they’re not getting their vehicles dirty,” Bevins said.
Fletcher’s preference, or lack thereof, may more aptly represent the region this year. The disabled construction worker is not sure he’ll vote, because he’s also no big fan of McAuliffe.
“I don’t want either of them to be elected,” Fletcher said.