ABINGDON, Va. — The billboards stand right at the intersection, ugly and jarring in this lovely southern town.
“If you voted the last election to prove you weren’t racist, vote this election to prove you’re not an idiot,” reads the largest and most aggressive one.
“Our jobs depend on coal. Why does Obama want to take them away?” says another. A third has a smiling Obama cartoon and “His promises = lost jobs” with a picture of a “cancelled” coal miner.
Just in case anyone misses the point, a large “Romney/Ryan” sign hangs in the middle.
With hillsides full of trees in glorious fall color, under bright sunshine and an azure sky, this Blue Ridge Mountain region should be close to heaven. But the beauty of the nature is more than offset by the ugliness of the politics in this small but vital state.
Virginia, with its 13 electoral votes, is a hotly contested battleground for the presidential campaign. According to the latest polls, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are virtually tied, although a survey released Friday gives Romney a slight edge.
It is a bit of an anomaly that Virginia is in play at all; it went for Obama in 2008, the first time it had voted “blue” in more than 40 years. The last Democratic presidential candidate who triumphed in the Old Dominion was Lyndon Johnson, in his victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
This is coal country, full of religious fundamentalists and staunch conservatives. It is not a great place to be an Obama supporter.
One young woman, who asked that her name not be used because it could jeopardize her job and her standing in the community, is close to despair about the tone of the campaign.
“It is nauseating,” she said. “I went door to door canvassing for Obama in 2008. People would look at me and say ‘I can’t believe you’re asking me to vote for a —'” she paused and shook her head. “You know,” she said. “They used the ‘n’ word.”
Racism is alive and well here, and it is a major factor in the election campaign, according to some residents.
In the lovely Martha Washington Inn and Spa, a historic hotel in the middle of town, the management is fiercely anti-Obama. According to one waitress in the café, all of the employees were given free tickets to see “2016: Obama’s America,” the “documentary” released this summer by filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, purporting to prove that the president of the United States is an anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, white-hating enemy of America.
“I don’t know why people are not talking more about the racism,” said Marc Maiorana, a local artist and metalworker. “It is everywhere.”
With the presidential contest as tight as it is, both parties have been pouring time and resources into Virginia.
Obama campaigned in the northern part of the state on Friday, speaking at George Mason University in Fairfax. Romney was in Chesapeake, Virginia on Wednesday, and his son, Matt Romney, will speak at a coal rally in Grundy on Sunday.
Grundy is a coal-mining town, with scarred hillsides and a large coal plant belching smoke into the air.
One resident of the area recalls being taken to the McDonald’s in Grundy as a special treat when she was a child.
“My grandmother would bring a change of clothes for us, because we got so dirty in the playground,” she said. “Just going down the slides our clothes would be black from the coal dust.”
In 2008, a mine in Grundy was sanctioned by the federal government for health and safety violations.
The coal industry is also under threat from natural gas projects and from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has sought to impose some standards on coal plants.
In August, the US Court of Appeals struck down an EPA rule aimed at curbing emissions from coal-fired plants, in what was widely seen as a blow to the Obama administration’s attempts to help clean up the environment.
But the miners have not forgotten, nor will they soon forgive the president.
“They blame Obama, big time,” said Maiorana. “This state is all about getting as many resources out of the ground as possible, with no regulation. Everyone is sick, everyone’s got cancer, but they just want to be left alone.”
A 2011 study found that cancer rates were almost double the national norm in Appalachia coal country.
But Matt Romney will most likely seek to appeal to the miners’ fear of joblessness, and their anger at what they see as interference from Washington, when he campaigns for his father in Grundy on Sunday.
Coal also featured in the bitter debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday, in which the two candidates traded jabs about energy and Obama sought to defend his administration’s record.
“We made the largest investment in clean coal technology to make sure that even as we're producing more coal, we're producing it cleaner and smarter,” he said.
But Romney was having none of it.
“Coal production is not up, coal jobs are not up,” he said. “I was just at a coal facility where some 1,200 people lost their jobs. “
Judging by the signs in this part of the state, Virginians agree with Romney.
Virginia is a deeply divided state; the north, where towns like Arlington and Alexandria serve as bedroom communities for the Washington metropolitan area, is largely liberal.
“Thank God for Fairfax County,” said Maiorana. “It has a million people, and it will carry the state.”
But it will be close. Virginia has a population of more than 8 million, and the farther one gets from Washington, the more conservative the atmosphere.
In Lexington, a gracious town in central Virginia, the population seems to be more evenly divided between liberal and conservative. This is the site of the Virginia Military Institute, where Romney delivered his foreign policy speech on October 8.
It is also home to Washington and Lee University. The Stonewall Jackson memorial Cemetery in Lexington might have more Confederate flags that the Stars and Stripes, but there are at least as many signs for Obama/Biden as for Romney/Ryan on the wide, leaf-strewn lawns.
A few hours south of Lexington, though, Obama signs all but disappear.
“There really isn’t any place to get them,” complained one frustrated campaign worker. “The Obama campaign has pretty much given up on us down here.”
Thinking back to the billboards, it’s not hard to see why.