Natalie Tennant, the presumptive Democratic nominee for West Virginia’s open U.S. Senate seat, got an earful visiting a company where workers said President Barack Obama’s environmental policies threaten their jobs.
“I’ll fight it,” Tennant said of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule affecting coal-fired power plants during a campaign stop at McBride Electrical Inc., a company in Welch that builds power lines for coal producers. “You have to have somebody who will stand up.”
Her outspoken opposition to the policies of a president of her own party reflects the unique politics of coal-mining states, which keep Congress stocked with industry allies even as mining jobs wane. In Kentucky, another coal state, Democrat Alison Grimes is siding with the industry as she battles for the seat of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
“These Democrats can’t even get in the game unless they make sure voters know they don’t parrot the administration on energy and on coal policy in particular,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Despite vigorous environmental and public-health pressure to kill it off, coal remains stubbornly resilient. Though its share of U.S. power generation fell to 38 percent last year from almost half in 2007, it’s still the nation’s No. 1 fuel for making electricity — releasing twice the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas for the amount of power generated. Globally, coal accounts for 40 percent of all power production and is growing in some markets, especially China and India.
Having friends in Congress has helped coal exploit that opportunity as well as thwart measures that could hasten its loss of market share to other fuel sources such as natural gas and renewable energy.
West Virginia’s former Democratic governor — and coal broker — Joe Manchin won election to the Senate in 2010 in a campaign that famously featured an ad in which he fired a rifle shot through the Democrats’ bill to create a cap-and-trade system regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The bill passed the House, yet never got a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
While coal may be less economically powerful than it was, it remains a political icon for the state’s economy and history, said Robert Rupp, a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. “Pull up our flag and who’s on it? A farmer and a coal miner.”
In 1950, West Virginia’s coal industry employed close to 120,000 people, but that dropped to 25,000 jobs by 2011, according to the nonpartisan West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy in Charleston. Nationwide, mining employment fell in that time from 415,000 to less than 143,000, according to the National Mining Association, due in part to productivity gains.
The industry’s influence runs counter to its shrinking employment, said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. That’s a result of a combination of campaign spending and a congressional coalition that includes almost all Republicans and just enough Democrats, like Manchin, who can help coal producers beat back legislation they don’t want.
Since 1989, the coal industry has donated $23.9 million to candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats, 80 percent of that to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
“Their influence may be only casually related to the number of people who are in the industry,” Baker said.
Environmentalists like Melinda Pierce, deputy director of federal policy at the anti-coal Sierra Club, insist the industry’s power in Congress is ebbing, with the Democratic-led Senate never taking up bills passed in the House under more than three years of Republican control that would limit the EPA’s regulatory might.
“At least in the Senate, there’s no longer that sense that coal is stalking the halls of Congress, winning votes,” Pierce said.
Still, the industry’s influence in the climate debate has frustrated the retiring senator whose seat Tennant is seeking: Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who often votes with the industry.
Rockefeller made blistering remarks about coal in a June 2012 Senate floor speech as the chamber debated rules to slash toxic emissions from the oldest and most polluting power plants in the country. He took on coal-industry lobbyists who were spending millions of dollars to accuse Obama of engaging in a “war on coal.”
“The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” he said, calling on the industry to embrace a lower-carbon economy. “Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes.”
Coal accounted for 28.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said those who accuse the shrinking industry of having out-sized influence ignore the role Obama’s regulations have played, putting it in a weakened state. Ultimately, he said, the industry could be poorly positioned to provide affordable fuel to make electricity if gas prices rise.
“Coal industry employment has fallen off its high in large part because of regulations from this administration that have accelerated the hardships that the coal industry has suffered in West Virginia and Kentucky,” Popovich said.
Average coal mining employment under Obama is up slightly from the prior administration, though well off historic highs, according to data from the National Mining Association.
Nevertheless, the industry’s troubles are fueling a broader sense of insecurity in West Virginia, even as it is outpaced by a boom in natural gas extraction in the northern part of the state, said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy in Charleston.
“Confidence has been so low because the economy has revolved around the mineral extractive industries for so long that the booms and busts of revenue really impact people’s feelings of how things are,” Boettner said. “And coal is declining in West Virginia, especially southern West Virginia, and it’s not coming back so there’s a lot of despair over that.”
It’s having a political effect felt throughout the state. In Lewisburg, winery owner Frank Tuckwiller says he’ll be pulling up his vines because there isn’t enough disposable income in the state to support his Watts Roost Vineyard. A Republican, he blames Obama’s coal policies for a particularly tough economy and says he will be voting for Tennant’s likely opponent, Republican Representative Shelly Moore Capito, a co-chair and founder of the Congressional Coal Caucus.
“We’re shutting it down,” he said. “I can’t sell the wine for a price that makes it profitable.”
No matter who wins the West Virginia race, coal can count on a friend in office. Tennant is running on a platform that includes pledges to block environmental regulations curbing mercury and other pollutants that are shuttering coal-fired power plants, and other rules curbing carbon emissions at existing and newly constructed plants. She instead supports funding for research to make fuel burn cleaner. So does Capito.
The congresswoman has written legislation that would require the EPA to hold hearings in any state where a new rule would cost more than 100 jobs and allow Congress to block some agency rules for economic reasons.
Among the dozen states with close Senate races this year, Obama’s approval ratings are lowest in West Virginia, where his policies affecting the coal industry mix with a general sourness on his administration and the state of the economy. That highlights the difficulty Democrats face as they try to keep the Senate, which they now control with 55 of 100 seats, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the Cook Political Report.
As she seeks to keep the seat in Democratic hands, Tennant is making a “Talk with Tennant” tour of all 55 West Virginia counties — Obama lost all of them in 2012 on his way to a 27-point loss to Republican nominee Mitt Romney. In the state’s 2012 Democratic presidential primary, a convicted felon, Keith Judd, drew 41 percent against the incumbent president.
Duffy and other analysts say Capito is favored to win the seat, which could put a Republican from the state in the Senate for the first time since 1956.
Tennant, who was a TV news anchor and small business owner before winning two terms as secretary of state, says she’s gaining support in a race she’s centering on issues of local importance and on issues where she stands independent of Obama, such as gun rights and Obamacare. Democrats also have a nearly 2-to-1 voter registration advantage in the state.
“I won in 2012 with 62 percent of the vote when a very unpopular president was on the ballot,” she said in an interview. “People know I’m an independent thinker and that I will stand up for what’s right for West Virginia.”
Capito has vastly out-raised Tennant, including among coal interests. The Republican lawmaker raised $3.3 million by the end of last year, and had $3.7 million cash on hand. Of her donations, $263,800 came from political action committees of mining companies or their workers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes $22,500 from Murray Energy Corp., a Pepper Pike, Ohio-based coal producer.
Tennant had raised $800,197 and had $603,816 cash on hand. That included $10,400 from the mining industry, all from Mine Power Systems Inc., a battery maker located in Beaver in Raleigh County. She also has received $5,000 from the United Mine Workers union.
Despite the gap, Tennant can count on added funding and voter mobilization help from Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs pro-choice candidates, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other labor unions.
“We will be in that race lock, stock and barrel,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in an interview.
It’s not clear whether that will be enough.
Back at McBride Electrical, owner Harold McBride said Tennant made a great impression during her campaign visit, but he hasn’t decided yet who he’ll back on Election Day even though he usually votes Democratic.
“She has to convince me that she’s 200 percent behind coal, no matter what the administration does,” said McBride.