Robert Cahaly Poll: Dominion Deal Has Huge Public Support

“Listen up,” lawmakers …

Remember those E.F. Hutton commercials from the 1970s and early 1980s?  They were cheesy as hell even by the antiquated standards of yesteryear … but they were also memorable.  And thus, effective.

The vintage television spots featured the din and clamor of daily life grinding to an abrupt halt as everyone within earshot of the commercials protagonists awaited with baited breath whatever it was E.F. Hutton (a brokerage house) was about to say.

The tagline?  “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

And yes, we realize we are totally dating ourselves with this intro …

So we’ll get to the point: In South Carolina politics, strategist Robert Cahaly is the equivalent of E.F. Hutton.

When the Atlanta, Georgia-based operative releases one of his polls from The Trafalgar Group, people listen …

Why?  For starters, Cahaly was one of the only pollsters in America to correctly call the 2016 presidential election (in South Carolina and in swing states across the nation).  He then followed up his impressive presidential performance by correctly calling special elections in Georgia and the Palmetto State.

Cahaly has a reputation for not playing games with his numbers – politically or when corporate clients are involved.

“His rule is pretty simple: He doesn’t rig numbers,” one of Cahaly’s rivals told us. “He won’t release the data if a client doesn’t like what they see, but he’s not going to rig it.”

Why should state lawmakers be listening to Cahaly right now?  Because according to our sources, he’s got a new survey out on the #NukeGate debacle – one that comes as members of the S.C. Senate are preparing to vote on a bill that could torpedo the one and only credible offer put on the table to extricate the state from this command economic failure.

If the Senate bill (S. 954) passes as written, executives with Virginia-based Dominion Energy have made it clear they are prepared to walk away from the company’s proposed $14.6 billion acquisition of Cayce, South Carolina-based crony capitalist energy provider SCANA.

As we exclusively reported last month, S.C. Senate majority leader Shane Massey (below) is preparing to file an amendment that would partially repeal the notorious Base Load Review Act (BLRA) – a piece of special interest legislation that paved the way for #NukeGate.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

The BLRA was advanced by liberal state lawmakers and allowed to become law in 2007 by former governor Mark Sanford.  Under the terms of this glorified handout, SCANA and government-owned utility Santee Cooper were able to effectively socialize more than $2 billion worth of investment risk associated with the botched construction of two next generation nuclear reactors in Fairfield County, S.C.

The two utilities spent the past decade building (or as it turns out, not building) these reactors a cost of $9.8 billion.  The money was spent, but the project was never completed.  In fact it’s not even half-completed – with the cost to finish it reportedly ranging anywhere between $9-16 billion.

Drowning in debt, Santee Cooper pulled the plug on the reactors nine months ago – killing an estimated 5,600 jobs, squandering billions of dollars in investment and throwing the state’s energy future into chaos.  The state-owned utility’s decision has also prompted a flood of lawsuits and criminal investigations – as well as a full-court press by lawmakers to try and undo the damage they did (or at least give that impression to voters).

Enter Massey’s amendment, which would roll back the nuclear surcharge associated with the BLRA from 18 percent to five percent – immediately.  Currently Dominion is proposing to roll back the surcharge from 18 to 11 percent – in addition to giving SCANA customers $1.3 billion in immediate relief.

That equates to roughly $1,126 per customer – immediately.

According to Cahaly’s data, this deal – while far from perfect – is extremely popular.

Asked for their thoughts on the proposal, an even 50 percent of respondents said they supported it compared to only 15.45 percent who opposed it.  Among supporters, 17.27 percent said they strongly supported the deal compared to just 7.27 percent who said they strongly opposed it.  That’s more than a 2-to-1 intensity gap, which is worth watching as this issue becomes enmeshed with upcoming elections.

Support for the deal was consistent among SCANA gas customers, electric and gas customers and those who get their power from other providers.  All of these groups supported the deal by a large margin.

Asked how the current problems at SCE&G – SCANA’s subsidiary – should be solved, 57.54 percent of respondents said that lawmakers should “allow the company to be bought.”  Meanwhile, only 19.03 percent said the company should be allowed to go bankrupt.  Another 16.94 percent said it should receive a bailout while 6.5 percent said it should be allowed to “raise rates.”

Of interest for those following the upcoming partisan primary elections in South Carolina?  Cahaly asked several questions related to how lawmakers will be judged on this issue.

According to the data, those who vote to kill the deal could have serious problems on their hands during the June primary races.

For example, one question asked respondents if they would be more or less likely to support a lawmaker based on their support for a “private sector solution.”

A whopping 74.28 percent indicated they would be “more likely” to back lawmakers who supported such a solution – including 20.57 percent who said they would be “much more likely” to support such a lawmaker.  Meanwhile only 12.57 percent said they would be less likely to support such a lawmaker.

That’s worth remembering as the primaries heat up.

Making lawmakers who fall on the wrong side of the “private sector” divide even more vulnerable?  The public’s (justified) belief that the S.C. General Assembly is to blame for this fiasco in the first place.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

In perhaps the most significant question posed by this survey, 43.39 percent of respondents said they believed either the legislature or the legislatively appointed S.C. Public Service Commission (SCPSC) was “most to blame” for the current situation.  By comparison, 41.32 percent of respondents blamed “mismanaging executives” at the two beleaguered utilities.

Let that sink in: More people are (correctly) blaming government for this debacle than the executives who screwed the pooch on this project.

That existing base of opposition to lawmakers (and their incompetent appointees) should make campaigns against incumbents who vote against the deal far more effective.

Ultimately, though, it all boils down to money.

“People think a $1,000 check is coming to their mailboxes and the General Assembly is standing in the way,” one pro-Dominion consultant told us. “Members are going to get hit for screwing up a private sector solution to this problem.”

Indeed.  Hit effectively, it would appear.

Also worth considering?  Cahaly’s survey – taken in late March – comes nearly two months after Dominion suspended all advertising in support of its offer for SCANA.

“Wonder what would happen if Dominion went back on the airwaves with a vengeance?” one source close to the debate mused.

As we noted previously, this news site hasn’t endorsed the Dominion deal (we think the company can go a little further in its pot sweetening), but we haven’t been hostile toward it like some lawmakers.

Of course many of these politicians are looking for a convenient enemy in this fight – one allowing them to deflect attention from the fact that it was their failure that landed the state in this mess in the first place.

“South Carolina’s politicians sold their constituents down the river over a decade ago when they enacted the Base Load Review Act, and there is no offer on the table (or contemplated) that is ever going to make them whole again,” we wrote two months ago.  “The question is simple: What is the best deal to be gotten without torpedoing the whole process and ushering in a debilitating, multi-year legal battle?

The uncertainty from such a protracted court fight could cost the state billions of dollars in economic activity and tens of thousands of jobs. In fact, it’s already costing the state jobs.

Again, we think Dominion can do better … but we also believe the legislature is taking a major risk by running them out of town on a rail (which is what the current version of S. 954 would most assuredly do).

As we’ve stated from the beginning of this drama, we don’t trust the politicians who created this disaster to get us out of it.  At all.  Nor do we believe sufficient ratepayer relief is currently on the table.

“Our goal is simple: A reasonable settlement that maximizes ratepayer relief, within the confines of what the courts will accept and the markets will bear,” we wrote last month.

Not surprisingly, Dominion was pleased with the results of the survey.

“We continue to see overwhelmingly strong support for our proposal as we meet with people across South Carolina,” the company’s vice president of corporate communications Chet Wade told us.  “This poll is further confirmation.”

As is his custom, Cahaly declined to discuss the survey – or even confirm the poll was his.

“I’m not aware of what you have or where you got it but I’ve done nothing on this issue for public release,” Cahaly said in a written statement.

Stay tuned … the State Senate convenes next week with Dominion’s deal at the top of its agenda.



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