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
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."
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.
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
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
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."
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
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.