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Much has been written about last week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, where former Rep. Tom Perriello challenged establishment candidate Ralph Northam in a late charge. The race was billed as “establishment” vs. the “Bernie wing” of the party, but there’s another story to be told in Virginia: that of the pipeline fighters and the critical votes they could provide in November’s hotly contested general election.
After a late start, Perriello gained prominence in no small part due to his opposition to two proposed natural gas pipelines: the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, both with planned routes through Virginia. Perriello put out an ad highlighting his opposition to the pipelines and later signed a pledge to reject all money from fossil fuel interests, including from Richmond-based Dominion Energy, one of the backers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Previous conventional wisdom had suggested that opposing energy infrastructure projects and rejecting fossil fuel money could be a bad move in a state that’s home to an influential and deep-pocketed energy giant like Dominion Energy. Not anymore. Perriello’s principled stand proved to be a vote winner, resulting in increased turnout and support in areas where communities are mobilizing against the pipelines.
Perriello out-performed in counties along the pipeline routes where there is active opposition. He won the majority of these counties and inspired soaring levels of voter turnout as communities took the opportunity to vote against the pipelines at the ballot box. Turnout levels across the state increased substantially from 2009 (the last contested Democratic primary), even when you correct for population growth. But turnout growth in pipeline counties far outstripped the statewide surge in voting.
Nelson County is a prime example of the pipeline fighter effect, where opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipelines is fierce. Communities in Nelson are engaged and mobilized. And they supported Perriello 91 percent to Northam’s 9 percent. Turnout in Nelson County was massive, beating 2009’s numbers by an astounding 113 percent, more than double the percentage increase in non-pipeline counties.
Montgomery County offers another indicator that candidates will have to come out hard against pipelines to earn votes in western Virginia. The Mountain Valley Pipeline’s proposed route runs through Montgomery County, where communities have been organizing and fighting back for years. Perriello earned 63 percent of the vote, while Northam earned just 37 percent. Turnout in Montgomery was 88 percent higher than in 2009 – more than 30 percentage points higher than the increase in non-pipeline counties.
Nelson and Montgomery are not outliers. Strong turnout and support for Perriello were seen wherever residents’ voices have been raised in opposition to the pipelines, particularly in rural western counties and towns along the pipeline route. Pipeline fighters are mobilized and energized, and constitute a critical voting bloc that will turn out for the right candidate.
If Northam wants to unite the party and win the election with a strong mandate, he has a big job ahead of him. So far, he has refused to oppose the pipelines and has taken nearly $30,000 from Dominion Energy this election cycle. He would be wise to take Perriello’s lead by saying “no” to the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipeline, “no” to fossil fuel money moving forward, and “yes” to a clean energy future.
David Turnbull is the campaigns director for Oil Change USA.
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