Virginians narrowly elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe as their new governor Tuesday in a campaign where national environmental issues may have been more of a factor than the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
McAuliffe prevailed over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, though neither candidate was particularly well liked — most polls showed only a bit more than a third of voters had favorable views of either McAuliffe or Cuccinelli.
Nonetheless, many environmental groups rallied to McAuliffe’s side, in large part because of Cuccinelli’s skepticism about human influence on climate change and his attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency.
The two candidates battled over the EPA’s proposed regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which McAuliffe supported but Cuccinelli labeled an “illegal war on coal.”
The Virginia League of Conservation Voters contributed $1.7 million to support McAuliffe, making it the largest source of support for his campaign after the Democratic Governor’s Association.
Several other environmental groups had been supporters of McAuliffe too, in part because they wanted to send a message to other candidates who oppose action on climate change.
“Ken Cuccinelli’s one of the highest profile climate deniers in the country, and I think the role that the environmental community has played sends a real signal that being in our sights is a risky place to be,” Navin Nayak, vice president of the national League of Conservation Voters, told Politico prior to the election.
McAuliffe ran an attack ad focusing on Cuccinelli’s climate change position, making him the first candidate running for high office to do so, according to environmental groups.
McAuliffe will become a member of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, the top policymaking panel for the Bay restoration effort which also includes other state governors; the EPA administrator; the District of Columbia mayor; and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.
Aa a result, his administration may have a voice in the new Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Development of the agreement was set back by the federal government shutdown, and it may be delayed until late winter or spring.
While the Bay was not a major issue in the election, McAuliffe’s platform called for state leadership in meeting the nutrient and sediment reduction goals established under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet. “The next four years are a crucial period for the Bay, which needs the support, advocacy and leadership of the Commonwealth of Virginia if it is going to return to the economic, environmental and recreational asset it can be,” the platform stated.
He pledged the state would help local governments achieve their obligations under the watershed implementation plans, which outline actions needed to meet Bay nutrient and sediment goals. With costly stormwater controls emerging as a major concern of local governments, he pledged new efforts to identify and promote the most cost-effective techniques to help control stormwater runoff.
Like Governors Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell before him, he pledged to protect 400,000 acres of open space during his term. His platform also said he would prioritize the protection of lands that would provide public access.
With increased interest in hydrofracking to access deep natural gas reserves in the state, McAuliffe pledged he would support local government control over drilling decisions. He opposed opening George Washington National Forest to fracking. He supported a continuation of the state moratorium on uranium mining.
He also pledged to create a Climate Change Adaptation Commission to develop a comprehensive plan for protecting communities from sea level rise.