Special Report

Coal Shoulder

Virginia coal country turned out, but it was just too small.

By 11.7.12

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ABINGDON, Va. -- While the coal issue drove higher Republican voter turnout and percentages in Virginia coal country, it wasn't nearly enough to change Tuesday's election outcome in the state.

According to unofficial vote totals released by the Virginia State Board of Elections after midnight, President Barack Obama had won the state with 50 percent of the vote to challenger Mitt Romney's 48 percent.

Virginia, a swing state that wasn't called until hours after Obama's victory was announced, had faced a constant bombardment from both sides with ads and campaign events.

The large but largely rural region of Southwest Virginia, which relies on coal mining as a key economic driver, had received a lot of attention from the Romney-Ryan campaign with visits in the weeks leading up to the election.

The strategy, supporters said, was to drive higher turnout in areas with strong support, in hopes of bringing swing state Virginia back to the Republican side of the election equation this year. But it wasn't enough.

In Virginia's seven coalfield counties and one city, a total of 2,787 more people voted Tuesday than on Election Day in 2008. Overall, Romney gained 10,100 votes over the 2008 Republican total -- a number that could have made a big difference if the Presidential race had been closer statewide.

Percentage-wise, Virginia's coal region jumped from 61 percent Republican in the 2008 Presidential election to nearly 72 percent this year, with a similar trend reflected in some of the surrounding Southwest Virginia counties, which are tied to it economically.

The change was driven in part by a belief that Obama administration restrictions on air pollution and mining have drastically impacted the region's economy, directly causing a downturn in the market for coal and leading to the layoff of thousands of workers.

By contrast, a Republican gain of less than one percentage point in the large, urbanized Northern Virginia county of Fairfax equaled a larger gain in terms of votes.

Based on the unofficial totals from the state board of elections, Fairfax County reported 29,636 fewer votes for the Republican candidate compared with 2008 and 56,409 fewer votes for Obama, for a net benefit to the Republican side of 26,773.

Still, Obama won Fairfax County by 82,592 votes -- more than the total number of votes cast in Virginia's coalfields.

In some ways, what happened in Virginia was similar to what happened all over the country Tuesday. Conservative voters may have been fired up about the perceived harm of Obama's policies, but their anger wasn't enough to defeat a larger Democratic trend.

In southwest Virginia, Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith, who unseated a revered longtime Democratic incumbent on coal issues in 2010, won re-election Tuesday over a new Democratic opponent by a margin of nearly two-to-one.

Griffith, who is to return to the U.S. House of Representatives for a second term, has spent his first as a member of the House's vocal Republican majority.

The outcome of Virginia's U.S. Senate race, meanwhile, helped the Democrats to retain control of the Senate as they have the White House. In a close race, former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine defeated former Republican Gov. George Allen, keeping the seat in Democratic hands.

Really, not much changed on Tuesday: The nation, like Virginia, remains divided along regional, demographic and ideological lines.

While Obama's supporters view the President's agenda as a way forward, others -- like those in coal country who turned out in significant numbers Tuesday to vote against him -- have already started to talk about preparing for the worst.

And while the pundits speculate on whether the election outcome will mean continued political gridlock or a new opportunity for compromise, the people in coal country and elsewhere remain every bit as worried about the issue at hand: their economic future.

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About the Author

Debra McCown is an award-winning journalist based in Abingdon, Virginia. She can be reached at debra (dot) mccown (at) gmail (dot) com.