The "war on coal" lost in a clash last night with a supporter of climate science.
Democratic allies are taking that message away from Terry McAuliffe's narrow victory in the bitter race for Virginia governor, in which Republican Ken Cuccinelli accused his opponent of supporting the destruction of coal jobs through efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That attack failed, emboldening Democratic groups, which plan to exploit what they see as newly exposed risks to Republicans who shrug off the scientific evidence of climbing temperatures. The race is also seen as a successful test for a strategy that Democrats stand to deploy during midterm elections next year and in the 2016 contest for the White House.
"This is the first time ever that a candidate has run an ad exclusively focused on his opponent's denial of climate science," Navin Nayak, the League of Conservation Voters' vice president for campaigns, said in a memo this week after polls showed McAuliffe with a strong lead.
"Coal is no longer a winning wedge issue and denying the problem of climate change and blocking action to address it is a much greater political liability," he said.
Analysts say that's up for debate. The candidates contrasted sharply on a host of issues, not just climate, and Cuccinelli outperformed pre-election polling. The government shutdown, health care and the emotional touchstone of abortion all played roles in the race. McAuliffe finished with 48 percent of the vote compared to Cuccinelli's 45 percent.
If yesterday's election in Virginia showcased a Republican climate position that drew on the far right's distaste for energy regulation, then a simultaneous race in New Jersey saw the results of a softer approach by a Republican who appears to be on a quest for the presidency.
Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) acknowledged last month that "climate change is real and human activity plays a role." That position helped neutralize jabs by his opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D), who accused Christie of denying that Superstorm Sandy was exacerbated by rising temperatures.
She also criticized him for the slow pace of recovery along the coast, where more than 350,000 homes in New Jersey sustained damage when Sandy made landfall just over a year ago.
A straddler gains presidential momentum
It turns out that Buono was yelling into the wind. The storm wasn't a liability for Christie. Instead, it fueled his rise in popularity, according to political analysts. The governor sailed to victory in a landslide that gave him at least 60 percent of the vote.
The lopsided outcome reveals Christie's likability among groups that normally vote for Democrats: young adults, women, minorities and even Democrats -- many of the same voters for whom climate change is an important issue.
"He's made significant inroads into what should have been Barbara Buono's base," said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "The real cause -- and I'm very comfortable saying this -- is Sandy."
Before the storm, Christie's popularity was predictable. On a good day, it would reach 50 percent. Republicans were warm to him; Democrats were not. In the last poll by Rutgers before Sandy struck, a slim majority of respondents said they wanted a new governor.
Then the storm came, and his popularity shot skyward. It's still up there -- at 67 percent this week.
To some, this underscores Christie's strange ability to appear attractive to a large majority of residents, no matter their age, sex or political leanings, even as he pursues policies that they don't support.
On climate change, Christie has done plenty to anger environmentalists. He pulled New Jersey out of the 10-state cap-and-trade program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a move that at the time raised concern about the program's future. He also closed the state's Office of Climate Change and Energy, which had a hand in carrying out the Global Warming Response Act, a 2007 law requiring the state to reduce its emissions 20 percent by 2020.
Even today, Christie is raising the ire of flood experts and land planners for failing to push coastal towns to rebuild using projections of sea-level rise. He's also tested the patience of moderate voters by speaking at an anti-abortion rally and by proposing funding cuts to Planned Parenthood.
But none of that has tainted his image as a leader who stood tough in the face of a disaster.
"In this particular election, issues don't seem to matter. People are voting for him. They're voting for the personality, they're voting for his attitude, they're voting for his approach," said Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University. "It has nothing to do with the fact that a majority of New Jerseyans have one opinion on climate change and he might have another -- or on abortion rights, or minimum wage."
'You don't argue with facts'
Like Christie, Cuccinelli also sought to portray himself as an unbending leader. As attorney general, his legal battle to force the University of Virginia to turn over emails from climate scientist Michael Mann elevated his stature nationally as a tea party champion, even as it failed.
His strong rebuke of the science around climate change might have played well in Virginia's southwestern notch of counties with coal mines and in the rural countryside. But it also exposed him to high-profile attacks.
"Cuccinelli, a climate change denier, forced the university to spend over half a million dollars defending itself against its own attorney general," said a television ad released by the McAuliffe campaign.
Last weekend, Obama took his own jab.
"It doesn't create jobs when you go after scientists and you try to offer your own alternative theories of how things work," Obama said to laughter at a campaign event. "It has to do with what's true. It has to do with facts. You don't argue with facts."
In the end, Cuccinelli's court battle probably reduced his standing among moderate Republicans, said Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
"I think Ken Cuccinelli was thinking that anti-intellectualism was popular among Republican voters," Brians said, but he "probably hurt himself a lot more than he realized at the time."
"I think that was seen as an attack on the Virginia higher education system," he added.
Ripples in New York City and Colo.
As climate skirmishes were underway in Virginia and New Jersey, there was an emphasis to the north about preserving landmark actions to reduce emissions and adapt to changes in the atmosphere.
Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, outpolled Republican Joseph Lhota to win the race for mayor of New York City. It's the first time since 1989 that the city has elected a Democrat. It's also notable that de Blasio had little room for improvement over outgoing independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg's robust policies to combat climate change.
De Blasio captured 73 percent of the vote to Lhota's 24 percent.
That leaves de Blasio, who ran on a populist platform to help impoverished New Yorkers, in part through a small tax on wealthy residents who earn more than $500,000, as a steward of Bloomberg's ambitious PlaNYC. The plan is meant to prepare the city for 1 million new residents by 2030 while reducing its emissions by 30 percent.
"On addressing climate change and building a resilient city, improving public health and creating a smarter transportation grid, there is much of the Bloomberg agenda that does not need reinventing," The New York Times editorial board said in its endorsement of de Blasio.
Elsewhere in the country, voters in the green-leaning city of Boulder, Colo., weighed in on a referendum that would preserve the city's efforts to run its own utility and purchase more renewable energy. Preliminary results indicate that it passed.
In 2011, two narrowly passed ballot initiatives allowed the city to explore taking control of utility services from current provider Xcel Energy Inc. Boulder has sought this option as a means to shift its power supply portfolio toward alternative energy sources.
With almost half the ballots counted, 64 percent of voters had approved a City Council-proposed ballot measure, named 2E, that limits the amount of debt to $214 million should the city choose to run its own utility.
Ballot measure 310, which would have effectively stopped the city from moving forward in its plan to replace Xcel, appeared headed toward failure by a wide margin.
Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn contributed.
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.