Republicans believe there are three words so powerful that they might reshape the political order in an economically beleaguered corner of the country: War on coal.
With Democrats holding total control of the federal government and a cap-and-trade bill still looming, the GOP is fanning widespread coal country fears that the national Democratic Party is hostile to the coal mining industry, if not outright committed to its demise.
Those efforts are putting a group of coal state Democrats at risk as Republicans leverage the tremendous economic anxieties surrounding the future of an industry that is a vital part of their states’ economies.
In West Virginia and Kentucky, longtime Democratic House incumbents with solid records on the issue are taking heavy flak. Across the border in Virginia, a veteran Democrat could face his most serious challenge yet in part because of his support of cap and trade. Two junior lawmakers from Ohio are facing threats for the same reason.
The issue may loom largest in West Virginia, where coal mining is an integral part of the culture and makes up a full quarter of the state’s revenues.
A well-known former state supreme court judge switched his party registration to run against 17-term incumbent Rep. Nick Rahall in the state’s coal-heavy south and wasted little time in raising the issue.
“West Virginians deserve a congressman who will fight to end this war on coal instead of standing by idly as thousands of local jobs are threatened,” said Elliott “Spike” Maynard in launching his campaign last month.
In an interview with POLITICO, Maynard said: “Our part of the world and way of life is threatened by liberal Democrats in Washington.”
He pointed out that some environmentalists want to stop all surface mining, the above-ground technique that happens to account for about 40 percent of the state’s coal jobs.
His message, he said, was simple: “If you vote for Spike Maynard, you’re voting for your job and to mine coal. If you’re against me, you’re voting against your job and against mining coal.”
(Maynard was defeated in his May 2008 bid for re-election to the West Virginia Supreme Court. He had been a heavy favorite to win the race until pictures surfaced showing Maynard and Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship vacationing in the French Riviera while a well-publicized appeal of a contract case involving Massey was still pending before the high court. The case served as the inspiration for author John Grisham’s legal thriller, “The Appeal.”)
Maynard’s re-election attempt was In the state’s north, a region less Democratic than the United Mine Workers-dominated south, 14-term Rep. Alan Mollohan is facing a primary from a state senator and has a host of Republicans vying to take him on in the general election.
One of those Republicans, former state Del. David McKinley, warns that cap and trade would “cripple the economy of West Virginia.”
Part of the challenge Republicans will have in the two districts is that both Rahall and Mollohan voted against the energy bill on the House floor last year. But Maynard and McKinley claim that the incumbents opposed it only because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had secured the necessary votes to pass the legislation. While the votes by Mollohan and Rahall make the messaging tougher for the Republicans, Mollohan’s suggestion last month that he could support the bill if concessions were made to the coal industry softens him up — and, of the two veterans, he seems to be the more vulnerable.
The veteran Democratic incumbents’ fates, however, may be out of their hands thanks to GOP efforts. While both have have worked diligently over decades for the coal industry, especially when it comes to delivering federal infrastructure dollars, Republicans are working to convince conservative and moderate voters to overlook that and send a message to such national party figures as President Obama and Pelosi, both of whom are unpopular in coal country.
The difference now, as compared to past election cycles, is that Republicans weren’t able to run against “Obama and his very liberal, very aggressive social agenda,” said McKinley.
Nick Casey, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said he wasn’t concerned about the line of attack — but still had a ready response to rebut the charge.
“Not having them there is the threat to coal,” said Casey of Rahall and Mollohan. “Because of their strength, because of their chairmanships, they’re the ones that act as advocates of coal and to some degree a restraint with others (in the party) who may not have warm and fuzzy feelings about coal.”
Rahall is the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and Mollohan serves as a senior member and a “cardinal” on the Appropriations Committee.
And, Casey added, local Democrats in a state with a popular Democratic governor and two Democratic senators remain well positioned even as West Virginia has drifted toward the GOP on the national level (something Casey chalks up to Republicans tapping into fears on “God, guns and gays — welcome to West Virginia.”)
The GOP’s coal country strategy may carry more resonance in those districts where the Democrats actually supported cap and trade.
In Kentucky, one of Rep. Ben Chandler’s Republican rivals is already tagging him for not standing up for coal.
Mike Templeman, a recently retired coal company CEO, is, like Maynard in West Virginia, a converted Democrat. And also like Maynard, he’s already on the attack over what he frames as an assault on a major industry in the Bluegrass State.
Templeman dropped a mail piece earlier this month that read, “He strongly opposes the Obama Administration’s war on coal, which hurts Kentucky’s economy.”
Al Cross, a veteran Kentucky political analyst, said Chandler’s vote on the energy legislation was what spurred the coal man into the race.
“I don’t think Mike Templeman would be running if Ben Chandler didn’t vote for cap and trade,” said Cross.
But Chandler, in a statement to POLITICO, said he’s been a champion of the industry.
“I helped secure $60 billion dollars in the energy bill for clean coal technology, and recently joined other members of the Kentucky delegation to support a power plant to produce electricity by converting coal to synthetic natural gas, capturing up to 75 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “Although it remains to be seen who the Republican nominee will be, my reelection campaign is off to a good start with nearly $1.6 million dollars cash on hand, and we are full speed ahead.”
In Virginia’s coal fields, longtime Rep. Rick Boucher may have the toughest race of his career, or at least since his first reelection in 1984, because of his support for the legislation.
A political survivor who has locked down a competitive district — known locally as the “Bloody Ninth” — Boucher has easily dispatched a stream of mediocre Republicans in a district that, like Rahall’s, is culturally conservative but retains a strong labor presence.
But with the 14-termer having shepherded cap and trade through the Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is a senior member, a trio of heavyweights from the state Legislature are now considering challenges: state Sen. William Wampler, and Dels. Terry Kilgore and Morgan Griffith.
One mitigating factor might be that Boucher used his committee position to insert $1 billion annually over 10 years for “clean coal” research — money he said at the time would make it possible for coal-fired plants to meet the legislation’s long-term emissions standards.
And in Ohio, freshman Rep. John Boccieri and second-term Rep. Zack Space, both Democrats from eastern Ohio, are facing threats because of their support for cap and trade.
After they voted for the bill, the Ohio Coal Association purchased billboards in the state portraying Pelosi dangling Boccieri and Space with strings. The image, the sign said, was from “the thousands of hard-working coal industry workers in the district.”
The trade organization has already purchased radio ads targeting them the duo for their votes and the group’s president, Mike Carey, promises they will do even more.
“You vote for cap and trade, you vote against coal — period, dot, end of story,” said Carey. (He wouldn’t expound when asked, but the Supreme Court decision last month lifting regulations on direct corporate spending might free coal interests to spend unprecedented sums to take out the two Democrats).
With a more GOP-leaning district — it was previously held by former Republican Rep. Bob Ney — Space may have the tougher race of the two. But Boccieri is seen as facing a more formidable Republican field.
Jessica Kershaw, Boccieri’s spokeswoman, said she didn’t think the congressman imperiled his re-election by his vote on the bill.
Kershaw said her boss had concerns about the House legislation and worked to include an “impact amendment” in the final version that would offer assistance to those energy companies affected by the new restrictions on carbon emissions.
And ultimately, Kershaw said, Boccieri supported cap and trade because of its longterm benefit for the country.
“He knows the key to our economic security and national security is energy independence,” she said.
For now, though, it may be the job security of Boccieri and his coal state colleagues that is in question.
This report appeared in the February
13 edition of The Politico, a
political journalism organization
based in Arlington, Va.