The Virginia Senate race -- one of the most competitive and high-profile in the country -- has taken an unexpected turn, with the focus shifting to environment and energy issues with little more than a month to go before Election Day.
Much like the presidential race, the contest between former Sen. George Allen (R) and former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) had been largely focused on the economy and jobs.
But all that changed in the middle of September, when Kaine aired an ad shot from a helicopter hovering over a Wise County power plant (E&ENews PM, Sept. 13).
"As governor, I supported its construction," Kaine said of the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center. "I also support offshore energy, conservation and innovative investment in wind and solar, which together employ more than 66,000 Virginians. That's what I call unleashing our energy potential."
The ad set off a maelstrom of criticism from Allen's campaign, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce quickly went up with an ad (E&ENews PM, Sept. 20) criticizing Kaine's record on energy issues. The coal industry has also chimed in on Allen's behalf, and, not to be outdone, the League of Conservation Voters has launched what it says may be one of the most extensive and expensive mail programs of this election cycle on Kaine's behalf.
Taken altogether, Virginia has quickly become ground zero in the electoral battle between energy and environmental interests, even overtaking the presidential race, some observers say.
"The striking thing here is just how little discussion there is, comparatively, on the national stage regarding these issues," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "Environmental issues are not at the fore of the presidential race right now. And no one expected that the Senate race in Virginia would turn its attention to these issues."
In some respects, the shift isn't entirely surprising because Virginia has long been fertile ground for energy issues in politics. Discussion of offshore drilling, for example, has cropped up in recent statewide elections, with most successful politicians of both parties supporting it.
Further, a significant swath of southwest Virginia is firmly part of the coal culture, and voters there generally view the Obama administration's environmental regulations as detrimental to their economic well-being and lifestyle.
That, Rozell said, likely explains why Kaine decided to air the ad: He needs to cut his ties to the Obama administration from his former tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"The fact that Kaine is trying to position himself to the right of the administration has caused quite a stir," Rozell said. "It's not the expected role for a Democratic candidate, especially one that was the head of the DNC and effectively the spokesperson for their national agenda."
Recent polling suggests Kaine has opened a slight lead over Allen, though Republicans maintain the race is still deadlocked.
The Democrat's ad led to a forceful response from Allen's camp. The Republican former governor dubbed the ad a "whopper" and called on members of Virginia's Legislature to debunk the spot, as well as link Kaine to Obama administration policies like cap-and-trade climate legislation.
"I have been involved in the Dominion clean coal plant in Wise since its inception and it's news to me that Tim Kaine or his administration were strong advocates in making this a reality," Virginia Del. Terry Kilgore (R) said in a statement. "In fact we had to fight his boards to get it permitted."
Within a week, the Chamber of Commerce went up with a 30-second spot asking, "What exactly is Tim Kaine's position on American energy exploration?
"'Yes if,' 'Yes but,' 'Yes when.' And that means, 'No,'" the narrator says. "Kaine claims he's for American energy exploration, but wants to delay it. Kaine says he's for the Keystone XL pipeline, but just not now."
Neither the Kaine nor the Allen campaigns responded to numerous messages seeking comment for this story.
Republican strategist Chris LaCivita, who has worked for Allen in previous campaigns but isn't this time around, argued that the energy issue is a loser for Kaine because the difference is "stark" between the two candidates. Allen, he said, supports an "all of the above" approach, while Kaine, like the White House, wants to limit coal's use.
"Any energy position that Tim Kaine attempts to adopt," LaCivita said, is "built around a principle that everyone should be on a bicycle or in Fred Flintstone's paddle car."
Environmentalists don't see it that way.
The League of Conservation Voters has announced a 2.2 million-piece mail program that will cost $800,000 and reach about 500,000 households. Mail, the group says, will be an effective way to cut through the barrage of political ads in the closing days of the race and could swing the election. LCV leaders note that the 2006 Senate race between Allen and now-Sen. Jim Webb (D) was decided by just 9,300 votes.
Composed of eight mail pieces, the LCV campaign is designed to tie Allen to policies that would export jobs while arguing that Kaine supports domestic clean energy development that leads to jobs.
"What we're able to do is tell a new story about the economic consequences of some of the policies Allen is pushing with regard to energy and outsourcing," said Navin Nayak, the group's senior vice president for campaigns.
The pieces also highlight Allen's work on behalf of energy companies since leaving the Senate. As E&E Daily reported in January, Allen's financial disclosure forms show income from consulting for coal mining giants like Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Peabody Energy Corp., the Ohio Coal Association and a group called the American Energy Freedom Center (E&E Daily, Jan. 18).
Voters largely don't know about that work, Nayak said, and how it may explain why Allen supports subsidies for oil companies. Nayak added that 70 to 80 percent of voters in Virginia favor ending those subsidies.
"It undercuts a lot of what he says he's about and sheds light about his priorities," Nayak said.
Moreover, he said, a pro-coal message plays well only in the southwest, rural area of the state. In the population centers, particularly in Northern Virginia, Nayak believes the state is breaking in greens' direction.
"The bottom line in our mind is Virginia is a state that is trending increasingly more environmental," Nayak said. "A bulk of the residents in the state are increasingly environmental, they care about these issues."