There aren’t many hot races in this off-off election year, but the Virginia governor’s race is packed full of enough drama and weirdness for a dozen contests. Here’s just a sampling of the crazy: An obsessive vendetta against a prominent climate scientist. A fledgling cleantech company under federal investigation. A $1,500 turkey dinner (let’s hope it was organic and heritage breed). Dueling high-profile billionaire donors. And as a bonus, the Clintons are mixed up in it too — Bill, Hillary, and even Hillary’s brother.
Some recent polls have shown Democrat Terry McAuliffe with a small lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, but the race is widely considered a tossup. Virginia voters seem equally disgusted by both candidates. The sniping between the two sides has become so intense that Time called the race “the dirtiest, nastiest, low-down campaign in America.”
Here’s how the contest is shaking out in terms of climate and energy issues:
Ken “The Cooch” Cuccinelli is no ordinary GOP climate denier. As Virginia’s attorney general, he waged a two-year campaign to discredit one of the world’s top climate scientists, Michael Mann. Mann was a professor at the University of Virginia when his research led to publication of the iconic hockey-stick graph, which shows how average northern hemisphere temperatures have soared since the late 20th century. (The hockey stick has been reaffirmed by multiple subsequent studies.) In 2010 and 2011, Cuccinelli accused Mann of fraud and repeatedly tried to obtain papers and emails from his time at UVA, a failed attempt to discredit Mann’s climate research that proved costly for Mann, UVA, and Virginia taxpayers.
As attorney general, Cuccinelli sued the EPA in federal court, challenging its authority to regulate greenhouse gases. He lost that case last year, but, undaunted, he’s still trying to get the Supreme Court to take it up. He also lost his suit against the Obama administration’s fuel-economy standards. Earlier this year, he pushed to roll back a state program that provides incentives for utilities to use clean energy. Cuccinelli’s press secretary brags about the candidate’s “long history of defending the coal industry,” but he loves other fossil fuels just as much.
With climate and energy views like that, it’s no surprise Cuccinelli has been rewarded with big contributions from the Koch brothers and other dirty-energy interests. But they’re not his most controversial donors. Cuccinelli also received $18,000 worth of gifts from wealthy Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, including a fancy catered Thanksgiving dinner — gifts that are now under scrutiny after a scandal erupted over Williams’ sketchy loans and presents to outgoing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).
Here’s a McAuliffe ad bashing Cuccinelli over the Mann witch hunt:
Terry “The Macker” McAuliffe is no ordinary Democratic candidate himself. He’s a longtime Beltway political operative who’s super-tight with the Clintons; he was the top fundraiser for Bill’s 1996 reelection campaign and for Hillary’s 2008 presidential bid, cumulatively raising more than $400 million for the pair. In his 2008 memoir What a Party!, he boasts about his fundraising exploits, including once wrestling a 260-pound alligator in order to convince a donor to pony up.
A D.C. operative isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered for Virginia Democrats. In a dismal overview of the race, liberal columnist Jonathan Chait describes “soulless Democratic hack” McAuliffe thusly:
McAuliffe is a House of Cards character, only less articulate. Unlike most soulless hacks, he did not obtain his position through years of greasy pole climbing — he’s a novice in electoral politics whose only real power base is Beltway insiders. McAuliffe is the Democrat Democrats have been dying to vote against, except they can’t, because he’s running against a falling-off-the-right-edge-of-the-map Republican.
McAuliffe got into the green car business in 2010 when he cofounded GreenTech Automotive, which bought a Hong Kong-based electric-car manufacturer. Last year, GreenTech opened a plant in Mississippi and estimated that it would create 1,500 local jobs and produce 150,000 cars a year. As of four months ago, the company said it had about 78 employees in Mississippi and 10 in Virginia, and expected to produce about 7,000 cars this year. Cuccinelli’s campaign has hammered McAuliffe over the lower-than-anticipated jobs figures and the fact that GreenTech didn’t build its plant in Virginia.
But now GreenTech’s got much bigger problems. It and a sister company run by Anthony Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s brother, are being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for potential misconduct in soliciting foreign investors and trying to get them visas. The SEC scrutiny appears to have started in early 2013 — after McAuliffe had resigned from the company in late 2012 to concentrate on campaigning — but he’s caught up in the scandal.
GreenTech’s troubles aside, McAuliffe continues to tout energy efficiency, renewables, and the promise of clean energy jobs. But he hasn’t been consistent on energy issues. During a failed 2009 gubernatorial campaign, he came out strongly against coal: “As governor, I never want another coal plant built,” he said. This year, he visited a coal company and said he wants to help the state’s coal industry “grow” — a switch that earned him a “Full Flop” designation from the PolitiFact fact-checking website. He earned another “Full Flop” for his turnabout on offshore oil drilling.
Still, enviros are lining up behind McAuliffe. Mann has teamed up with the candidate to do campaign events that highlight Cuccinelli’s anti-science crusade. Mann isn’t so much excited about McAuliffe as he is horrified by Cuccinelli. As the scientist told National Journal, “If ever there was an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good, it’s someone complaining about a candidate like Terry who respects science and will reward innovation. One may not agree with every position he has regarding energy and climate politics … but the alternative is someone like Cuccinelli who represents a scientist’s worst nightmare.”
Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist and rabble-rouser, is also getting involved in the race, pledging to spend big on get-out-the-vote efforts and TV ads. Steyer made waves (and stepped on toes) earlier this year by spending more than $1 million in Massachusetts to help get climate hawk Ed Markey elected to the Senate. In the Virginia race, Steyer, like Mann, seems motivated largely by a desire to crush Cuccinelli.
Here’s a Cuccinelli ad bashing McAuliffe over GreenTech’s troubles:
Let’s wrap this all up with a car-salesman joke, via The New York Times:
At a campaign-style event to open the GreenTech factory in Mississippi in July 2012, [Bill] Clinton put in an appearance in support of his longtime friend … Before the ceremony, the former president joked backstage: “I would buy a new car from Terry. But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car.”
The line has not appeared in a Cuccinelli campaign attack ad. So far.
“I guarantee you it will,” said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.