Coal Fires Up Two Key Senate Races in 2014

Posted November 17, 2013 at 4:00pm

There’s no separating coal from the politics of West Virginia and Kentucky, two must-win states in the GOP’s calculus to regain the Senate majority in 2014.

But there’s also little apparent separation on the issue between the Democrats and Republicans likely to face off in the general elections in those states — largely because the Democrats have no legislative record on coal to compare. This has set off a battle of guilt by association, which means voters in these Appalachian states should expect to see plenty of President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in Republican TV ads next year.

Like immigration in the Southwest, coal is more than just a single issue in this region. As two of the top three coal-producing states in the country, where coal powers the vast majority of residents’ electricity, it’s inherently connected to everyday life in West Virginia and Kentucky. Even if it’s not the only issue, it’s always an issue.

“They want to see them fighting for their lives,” veteran Kentucky Democratic operative Jimmy Cauley said of voters. “It’s their jobs and their culture that coal represents.”

The coal industry took a hit last week when the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it will close eight coal units, including two of the three units at the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. Those two will be replaced by a gas-fired plant.

Amid the job losses in his home state, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies have highlighted the Kentucky Republican’s efforts to serve as the leading roadblock to the administration on coal, specifically the proposed regulations on carbon emissions from new power plants. He’s popped up everywhere in recent weeks to hammer the Environmental Protection Agency, and he even brought up coal during a health-care-only campaign news conference on Nov. 12.

Faced with competition from the left and right, McConnell has spoken out about coal on the Senate floor, at an EPA hearing and at a rally on the West Front of the Capitol. He’s also run a 75-second online ad that mentioned a “war on coal” or a “war on Kentucky” eight times.

The coal industry has noticed.

“Everything we’ve asked of him, he’s done,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which does not endorse candidates.

Should McConnell win the GOP primary, he would face a competitive challenger in Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. She has been outspoken in her opposition to the administration’s coal policies and has received support from the industry in her last race for state office.

However, Republicans intend to tether her to national Democrats viewed as unfriendly to the coal industry. That includes highlighting those who help her raise money and equating a vote for Grimes with one to keep Reid as the leader of the Senate.

“There is plenty of evidence to indicate that there is a bright line on coal in this race,” said Scott Jennings, the head of Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a pro-McConnell super PAC. “No matter what Alison Grimes says, she’s hanging out with, getting money from and being recruited by people who share a distinctly different view.”

Bissett said the industry is appreciative of Grimes’ public statements of support, but he said he hopes to hear in more detail over the next year how she’ll be effective against the leaders of her own party.

Grimes has been touring the state partly to do just that, including holding roundtable discussions on jobs and the economy. Last month she was in Letcher and Breathitt counties in eastern Kentucky, a battleground region for votes next year.

The Grimes campaign has also been working to cut holes in McConnell’s argument that he is coal’s best friend in Washington. In a recent campaign statement, spokeswoman Charly Norton said, “McConnell has failed to deliver solutions that could end the devastating job loss felt in Eastern and Western Kentucky.” The statement also reiterated that Grimes “will stand up to members of her own party.”

There’s a similar battle in West Virginia, where GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito will likely face West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Tennant distanced herself from the Obama administration on coal in her campaign announcement video, while the Capito campaign has wasted no time in tying her to Reid on the issue.

In a brief interview on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Tennant said she often discusses the importance of coal to the state and said she will stand up for the industry as the state’s next senator. She also brushed off the attempts to tie her to the national party that are sure to come.

“They can try to tie that, but this is about West Virginia values, and this is about what we’re going to do as West Virginians to build our economy,” Tennant said. “This is a West Virginia race. This is a West Virginia seat.”

Obama didn’t reach 38 percent of the vote in either state in 2012, but other Democrats have had recent statewide success. There’s no better example than Sen. Joe Manchin III, who constructed his own unique brand after two gubernatorial elections — he has now won two Senate races by double-digit margins. To accomplish this, Manchin literally shot a hole through the cap-and-trade bill in an ad during his first Senate race.

Replicating Manchin’s success won’t be easy for Grimes and Tennant — two candidates whose brands remain largely undefined. The two Democrats, both current secretaries of State, have virtually no legislative record on this pivotal issue, so Republicans will work to define them.

Aware of what’s to come for these challengers, Manchin said in a brief interview that Mountain State Democrats are their own breed, and he hopes voters recognize that in Tennant next year.

“I hope they look at her and look at every other candidate as an individual,” Manchin said. “We’re all individuals. West Virginia Democrats are a little different than Washington Democrats, that’s all I can say. We’re very independent.”