LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Obama administration’s proposal for sharp cuts to emissions from power plants complicates the midterm elections this fall for Democrats, especially because some of the battleground states for control of the Senate are tied to the coal economy.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, here in the most high-profile Senate race this year, has already been portraying herself as a friend of coal and a sharp critic of President Obama.
On Monday, Grimes pledged to “fiercely oppose the president’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry” if elected.
Natalie Tennant, a Democrat running for an open seat in West Virginia, struck a similar tone.
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“I will stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy, and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs,” she said Monday, referring to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is proposing the emissions regulation.
The regulation takes aim at the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. Experts say it could close hundreds of the plants.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November’s elections to secure a Senate majority, and key contests are in states with histories of hostility toward federal environmental regulations or close ties to the coal industry.
Republicans quickly seized on the fact that coal provides the majority of electricity in half a dozen states with hard-fought Senate races, including Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia.
“The stakes are clear,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said last week, adding that a vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate in Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia “is a vote in support of President Obama’s war on coal.”
But the issue is likely to play differently state by state, and in some cases the president’s aggressive action against greenhouse-gas emissions may benefit Democrats who tap into voter sentiment for addressing climate change.
The “war on coal” cry was a losing issue for Republicans in the race last year for governor of Virginia, which has significant coal mining, and which elected a Democrat.
“People on the Republican side overestimate the feelings for this and on our side, Democrats are scared for no reason,” said Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster. “Some Democrats assume anything about global warming is a political loser. And that’s just not the case.”
He identified races in Colorado and Iowa, with growing renewable-energy sectors, where confronting global warming can help the Democratic candidate in hard-fought Senate contests “if they play it correctly.”
In battlegrounds such as Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, where the president is deeply unpopular, the challenge is greater.
Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress this year, took to the House floor last week to pre-emptively denounce the EPA, which drafted the proposed carbon regulations. “The only real question is where on a scale from devastating to a death blow the new rule will fall,” he said.
As the president’s health-care measure, the Affordable Care Act, loses some of its potency as a Republican issue, with voters increasingly saying they would rather fix the law than replace it, climate regulations could gain ground as an issue. An outside group supporting McConnell, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, has spent $800,000 on TV ads that attempt to elevate coal to the importance of health care in attacks on Grimes, according to Kantar Media / CMAG, which tracks political advertising. “Obamacare; the war on coal: that’s Obama’s agenda,” one ad says.
Obama lost the state by 23 percentage points in 2012, and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, won all but one of the 30 counties that produce coal. Those jurisdictions represented almost a fifth of the state’s total vote, and a prolonged battle over the fate of coal could energize that electorate.
As a lesson in the potency of the coal issue in Kentucky, Republicans point to what happened in the state’s 6th Congressional District two years ago.
Andy Barr, a Republican, defeated a popular four-term Democrat, Ben Chandler, with a focused attack portraying Chandler as anti-coal because of his vote in Obama’s first term in support of a national cap-and-trade bill (it was defeated in the Senate). Chandler was called a “low life” in ads featuring a man in coal miner’s gear.
The message resonated even though there is not a single coal-mining job in the 6th District, which includes Lexington, and even as coal-mining employment is at a historic low for reasons unrelated to environmental regulation: competition from cheaper natural gas and the mechanization of mining.
Barr argued that Kentucky manufacturers, who create jobs, depend on coal for low electricity rates. He also tapped into the cultural affinity many Kentuckians feel for the coal industry, part of the state’s heritage.
This isn’t the first time Obama risked his party’s congressional standing over the issue of climate change.
In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats and their U.S. House majority in part because the White House pressed for passage of a carbon-reduction plan that infuriated the coal industry and its powerful energy-sector allies. The legislation died in the Senate, where the party managed to maintain control despite equally virulent opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
The House Republicans’ election committee has targeted more than 30 Democratic incumbents for criticism as a result of the White House action.
Among the nation’s 198 coal-producing counties, Leslie County, Kentucky, gave the president the least support in his 2012 re-election bid, data compiled by Bloomberg shows. He won just 9 percent of the almost 5,000 votes cast. President Clinton garnered 36 percent in the same county during his 1996 re-election.
The 3 million tons of coal that Leslie County produced in 2012 ranked 10th among the state’s counties — even though it was down 30 percent from 2011, according to Kentucky’s Department for Energy Development and Independence.
Since Obama took office in 2009, eastern Kentucky’s coal-sector employment has been cut by more than half and now stands at about 7,200, according to the state’s data. For every direct mining job lost, at least three other Kentuckians lose their paychecks indirectly, the state’s coal association says.
Leslie County had an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent in April, the fourth-highest in Kentucky. The toll on business and families is evident along Main Street, where some stores are closed and sales are down.
The mining slowdown has hit the county’s budget, which gets about a third of its revenue from a levy that Kentucky collects on coal as it’s removed from the ground.
Includes material from Bloomberg News