The Crazy Republican Obsession With Coal Country: A Lesson With Maps

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 4 2014 8:45 AM

The Crazy Republican Obsession With Coal Country: A Lesson With Maps

The Washington Times delves into the EPA rules and the role they're playing in Virginia's U.S. Senate race. Like I wrote yesterday, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie is just demogoguing the bejesus out of the new rules, declaring Barack Obama and Sen. Mark Warner equal partners in a "war on coal."

Mr. Warner burnished his political credentials in part by forging inroads with voters in coal mining towns in southwestern Virginia. That support could be in jeopardy if his likely Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, convinces voters that Mr. Warner has helped wage the presidents’ alleged “war on coal.”
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It's true—in 2001, Mark Warner won the Virginia governor's race, in part, by dominating in the western, coal-producing part of the state. Here, via Wikipedia, is a helpful county map.

No Democrat has done as well in coal country since then. Here's the map of Democrat Terry McAuliffe's 2013 gubernatorial win. You will notice a lot less blue.

And yet both men won their races. How? Let's focus on Dickenson County, the western piece of coal country where Ed Gillespie announced his outrage at the new EPA rules. In the 2001 gubernatorial race, Dickenson County voters cast 4,805 total ballots. Twelve years later, Democrat Terry McAuliffe got slaughtered in coal counties like Dickenson—he lost it by a 62–35 margin. It was a complete inversion of the 2001 results, when Mark Warner won the county in a 61–39 rout. (McAuliffe, unlike Warner, lost votes to a Libertarian candidate.)

The twist: In 2013, Dickenson County voters cast only 3,433 ballots, a decline of more than 25 percent in one generation. Direct your attention to the counties at the top of the state, the cluster close to Washington, D.C. See that L-shaped county that went red in 2001 and blue in 2013? Over 12 years, the total vote in Loudoun County had nearly doubled from 46,004 to 89,549 votes. In 2001, when that exurban D.C. county was still largely Republican, Warner lost it by a 54–46 margin. In 2013, McAuliffe won it 50–45.

Another way of looking at it? In 2001, by winning Dickenson and losing Loudoun, Warner lost a net 2,438 votes. In 2013, by losing Dickenson and winning Loudon, McAuliffe netted 2,846 votes.

It would be deeply satisfying, for Republicans, if they lopped off Mark Warner's support in western Virginia. This would mean no Virginia Democrat was competitive in coal country any longer, and do some damage to the Warner mythos. But it would get the Republicans no closer to winning. The EPA rules that anger people on coal country's vanishing main streets happen to sound just fine to the people shopping in Northern Virginia's burgeoning (and hideous) strip malls.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.