NYT: Democrats in Coal Country
Democrats in Coal Country Run From E.P.A.
It took little time for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is challenging Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, in the most high-profile Senate race this year, to distance herself from the Obama administration’s proposal for sharp cuts to emissions from power plants.
Even as the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its proposed regulation on Monday, Ms. Grimes pledged to “fiercely oppose the president’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my No. 1 priority.”
The reaction came hard and fast here in Kentucky, where coal is woven as deeply into the state’s psyche as basketball and bourbon, and where more than 90 percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal.
But the political implications of the emissions proposal reach well beyond this one state, complicating the midterm elections this fall for Democrats, especially since a number of battleground states for control of the Senate are tied to the coal economy.
The E.P.A. regulation would cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, particularly from the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The rule, which is to be finalized a year from now after a public comment period, gives each state flexibility to devise its own approach to meeting its goals.
Experts say it could close hundreds of plants.
Republicans quickly seized on the fact that coal provides the majority of electricity in half a dozen states with hard-fought Senate races: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia. “This regulation will kill jobs and force energy rates to skyrocket, so it’s no wonder President Obama is circumventing Congress to implement his latest job-killing regulation,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Monday.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee plans to attack Democratic incumbents in four energy-rich states in recorded phone calls on Tuesday: Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana and Virginia. The Louisiana script, typical of the others, includes the line: “Tell Mary Landrieu that this war on American energy just doesn’t make sense for Louisiana.”
The issue is likely to play differently state by state, and in some cases the president’s aggressive action against greenhouse gas emissions from power plants may benefit Democrats who tap into voter sentiment for addressing climate change. Liberals were hailing the president on Monday.
But Democrats in conservative states, whose fate could determine control of the Senate, were running from him. Like Ms. Grimes, Natalie Tennant, a Democrat running for an open seat in West Virginia, instantly went on the attack. “I will stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs,” Ms. Tennant said, referring to the E.P.A. administrator.
Some Democratic strategists noted that the “war on coal” cry was a losing issue for Republicans last year in the governor’s race in 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.”
Mr. Baumann identified races in Colorado and Iowa, with growing renewable energy sectors, where confronting global warming could help the Democratic candidate in close Senate contests “if they play it correctly.”
In Colorado, where Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat, is in a tough re-election fight, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Rick Palacio, pointed to mandates that voters passed years ago that the state generate part of its electricity from renewable resources. “We’ve seen the results of changes in temperatures,” Mr. Palacio said. “We’ve seen historic droughts and wildfires. They’re driving up the cost of everyday life for people in our state.”
Yet, in contested states such as Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, where the president is deeply unpopular, the challenge for Democrats is greater.
Representative Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress, took to the House floor last week to pre-emptively denounce the E.P.A. “The only real question is where on a scale from devastating to a death blow the new rule will fall,” he said.
That Ms. Grimes, who has opposed Mr. McConnell on every other issue, is feeling vulnerable was evident from her announcement on Monday of a new six-figure ad campaign targeted to coal country, proclaiming, “President Obama and Washington Don’t Get It” above a miner holding out a lump of coal.
The McConnell campaign was unimpressed with Ms. Grimes’s effort to distance herself from her party’s leadership. “Alison Lundergan Grimes was recruited by President Obama, who said he would ‘bankrupt’ the coal industry, and Harry Reid, who said ‘coal makes us sick,’ ” Mr. McConnell’s spokeswoman said in a statement.
As a lesson in the potency of the issue in Kentucky, Republicans point to what happened in the state’s Sixth Congressional District two years ago.
Andy Barr, a Republican, defeated a popular four-term Democrat, Ben Chandler, with a focused attack portraying Mr. Chandler as anti-coal because of his vote in Mr. Obama’s first term for a national “cap and trade” bill. (It was defeated in the Senate.)
The message resonated even though there is not a single coal-mining job in the Sixth District, which includes Lexington. And it took hold even as coal-mining employment is at a historic low for reasons beyond environmental regulation: competition from cheaper natural gas and the mechanization of mining.
Still, among voters here, lines in the fiercely fought Senate contest seemed well established before the latest positioning of both candidates over coal.
Bill Rawlins, 67, a retired Republican who works part time as a driver for an auto parts company, said he supported Mr. McConnell. “My gas bill this past winter tripled,” he said, blaming regulations on coal. “I say it’s forcing the coal industry out. It’s going to trickle down and get worse. Your E.P.A. right now, it’s costing the people so much.”
But Sondra Strunk, a Republican who owns a small business making wine jelly and candy, said renewable energy should replace fossil fuels. “I’m sorry about the coal, their jobs, their welfare,” she said. “Somebody should give them other work or training, because coal is going to run out one of these days.”
Dave Bailey, 59, a Democrat with a “Friends of Coal” sticker in his auto repair shop, gave no credit to Ms. Grimes’s distancing herself from Mr. Obama, adding he would vote for Mr. McConnell.
“It’s one of those things,” he said. “They introduced all these regulations, and the trickle-down effect will hurt all of us.”