Left-leaning activists were frustrated with Democratic Governor Ralph Northam even before he replaced several members of the state air and water boards earlier this month.
But several state political pundits say Northam may not pay much of a political price for the maneuver, even as other Dominion-friendly Democrats lawmakers may face a steeper primary season.
“It is a difficult political thing for him to maneuver, but he doesn’t face re-election,” said Rachel Bitecofer, co-director of the Wason Center for Public Policy. “So it does give him a little more flexibility in terms of what he’s able to deliver for the business end of the state political machine.”
Pipeline-related issues took center stage in Northam’s primary fight against Tom Perriello and have remained a rallying cry for the left flank of the Democratic Party, Bitecofer said. Northam’s decision to replace two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board after it dithered on whether to approve a piece of Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) infrastructure caused immediate outcry in that group; Democratic delegate Sam Rasoul called the decision “terrible.”
But outside of that continent, the replacements are unlikely to cause much of a stir, according to University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Farnsworth.
“For most voters in Virginia, it’s not likely to translate as the most important thing they think about when they vote a year from now,” Farnsworth said.
Farnsworth and Bitecofer said the issue could galvanize the Democratic base to challenge Dominion-friendly moderates like Democrat Dick Saslaw in upcoming primaries. Saslaw has taken more than $350,000 from Dominion since taking office---more than any other lawmaker, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project .
“Across the country, Democratic activists and Democratic progressives are putting pressure on Democratic politicians to become more hawkish on environmental issues,” Bitecofer said.
Dominion is proposing a controversial compressor station for the ACT in a historic African American community in Buckingham County. Virginia Commonwealth University politics professor Ravi Perry said the relative obscurity of the county and the issue limited media attention and political fallout. But he said Northam's appointments could also elicit a powerful backlash.
“Both the Obama and Trump administrations underestimated the power of the activists to keep the issue in the news by their personal sacrifice at the pipeline project,” he said. “For black rural voters, the action by the governor will be viewed in a racial context; and that can't be good for Democrats in Virginia.”
A number of freshmen Democrats pledged not to take money from Dominion, which has long played a central role in Virginia politics. Farnsworth and Bitecofer said they expected that trend to continue in next year’s election as the energy company faces a more challenging lobbying climate.
“Corporations do best in politics when they’re not in the limelight,” Farnsworth said. “Every time that Dominion’s name is raised in the context of a disagreement or controversy, that reduces the company’s ability to get what it wants.”