A Democratic primary in Virginia that shaped up as a contest between the party’s populist wing and its establishment has added a new twist: The state’s biggest power company is helping to get out the vote — and it isn’t hard to figure out why.
The two Democrats in the race, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello, have found few areas of policy disagreement throughout the campaign, though Perriello has emerged as the favorite of the progressive flank of the party, garnering endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
One issue where they do disagree, however, is one that Dominion Energy cares about deeply: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an epic project that would span from West Virginia to the South Carolina border, cutting through Virginia. Perriello is against it, while Northam wants a strong environmental review, but ultimately wants to leave the decision to federal regulators.
In May, Dominion Energy Chief Executive Thomas Farrell sent a letter to the company’s 76,000 current and former employees and shareholders, suggesting they “take time to review the candidates’ positions and see how they stand on critical projects such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.” The letter went on to emphasize the importance of the pending project to Dominion. “I urge you to exercise your constitutional right to vote in the primary of your choice,” the letter went on.
To make sure that constitutional right is exercised, Dominion set up a pledge-to-vote website, and sent another letter on June 8, reminding folks about the upcoming primary on June 13. Around the same time Dominion sent out its follow-up note, a Goldman Sachs analysis, flagged by influential Richmond Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman, warned investors that the company’s future profits were at risk because “one of the leading Democratic Party candidates has openly discussed opposition to some of the new pipelines proposed in Virginia.”
The follow-up note, like the first one, mentions neither candidate by name. But the message is clear enough: This state-regulated utility wants to pick the most favorable regulator it can in the Democratic primary.
Northam, though, shouldn’t count on the help to last past next week. Dominion is much more likely to favor the likely Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, in the general election.
Dominion, in a line echoed by Northam, insists publicly that the issue is a federal one, and that Virginia has no authority to block the pipeline. The Goldman Sachs analysis undercuts that claim, but not as much as Dominion is undercutting it on its own — by intervening in the Democratic primary. Dominion can’t both urge its folks to vote for the candidate who is most favorable to the pipeline while also insisting that the governor has no sway over the issue. Its protestations give away the game.
The pipeline is slated to start in West Virginia, which has been fracked to within an inch of its life. From there, it will pipe natural gas through Virginia and into North Carolina, where it will link up with an existing pipeline and run down to the South Carolina border. Along the way, construction threatens a wide array of endangered species, and the pipeline itself portends its own environmental harm.
David Turner, a spokesman for Northam, said that ultimately the raw politics of the issue in the primary aren’t clear. Perriello’s firm stand against the pipeline is popular among Democratic voters, but it might be balanced out or overwhelmed by Dominion’s intervention in the race. “To be perfectly honest, I have no idea whether or not that’s helpful,” said Turner of the power company’s efforts.
Perriello, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has made much of his refusal to accept money from Dominion, which has become a proxy in Virginia politics for standing up to corporate power. After Perriello made the pipeline an issue in the campaign, Northam sent a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality calling for a rigorous review. At a recent debate, Perriello asked Northam if he’d talked to executives at Dominion before sending the note.
“Well, I’ve had a lot of discussions with a lot of different people, Tom, and I’m not going to stand here on the witness stand, if you will, and respond to what those discussions entail,” Northam said. “Obviously we want the pipeline to be built with science and transparency. We also need jobs in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And so I think all of these things — it’s not a yes or no, or us versus them — it’s something that we all sit down at the table and discuss.”
Internal polls put out by the Northam campaign show Northam with an edge in the race. A spokesperson for Dominion didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.