West Virginia Republicans who have long sought to unseat the state's only remaining House Democrat think they've found a winning message -- that Rep. Nick Rahall was for a carbon tax before he was against one.
The 35-year veteran lawmaker betrayed his southern West Virginia district and its iconic coal industry in March, they will argue, when he joined liberal Democrats voting for the House Progressive Caucus' fiscal 2014 budget resolution, which called for the introduction of a carbon tax.
"For him to vote this way directly opposed to the coal industry is going to be a top issue," said Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, in an interview yesterday afternoon.
To be sure, Rahall has an extensive record when it comes to coal issues and one that industry advocates have sometimes honored. He has introduced and supported numerous bills of interest to the industry throughout his career, including some that would expand coal's market share -- see the "Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Energy Act of 2006" -- and others that guard against government interference and regulation. Rahall has co-sponsored legislation to strip U.S. EPA of its authority to regulate carbon dioxide or to tie those rules to development of carbon capture and storage technology.
He also voted against the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill that cleared the House in 2009 after an aggressive push by his party's House leadership.
But Lucas dismissed Rahall's past efforts.
"You're only as good as your current position," he said. "Whatever stance he took prior to the progressive budget is negated by the progressive budget itself."
Lucas said the campaign to defeat Rahall in 2014 would continue to take shape over the next year, but he predicted that the carbon tax issue would be "front and center."
"Whether on TV or in mailboxes, every possible campaign tactic will be used to highlight that," he said.
For his part, Rahall said in an interview earlier in the week that it was his understanding that the version of the progressive budget he supported never contained a carbon tax.
"I read the amendment, and nowhere is a carbon tax stated," he said.
In a certain light, that's true. The amendment to the GOP's annual spending and tax blueprint specified no policy items at all, just funding levels for various federal functions. The same can be said for any budget resolution, including the one sponsored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that cleared the House.
But the supporting documents on the budget provided by the House Progressive Caucus make it clear that some of the revenue the budget counts on would come from a tax on carbon dioxide.
"The Budget for All would impose a $20 per ton price on CO2 (increasing at 5.6% a year) on polluters, and rebate 25% of all revenues as refundable credits holding low and middle income families harmless," it states.
A few weeks after the progressive budget vote -- which went down in the House, 84-327 -- Rahall introduced a measure to bar the Treasury Department from introducing a carbon tax, which the agency has said it has no plans to do (E&E Daily, April 12).
"I am not for a carbon tax," Rahall told E&E Daily.
Rahall said that a carbon regime of any kind -- regulatory or market-based -- would hurt his constituents.
"Anything affecting the burning of coal or the fossil fuels in total -- more so than just coal itself -- would impact our state," he said, "because we are a fossil fuels state."
He said his budget vote had not become an issue, because his constituents knew he would never advance a policy that was bad for coal.
"But that doesn't stop the [National Republican Campaign Committee], though, from trying to make their political points," he said, "which goes further to prove that it's just a political message, by their actions the last couple of weeks."
Rahall is one of the NRCC's most wanted Democratic incumbents. The committee targeted him together with six other red state Democrats this spring as part of its "Redzone" campaign for the 2014 cycle.
"It's often said that when it goes, it goes quickly, and Rahall is proving that truism this year by voting for the Progressive Budget, which includes both a carbon tax and massive tax hike on the very coal industry that powers West Virginia's entire economy," the NRCC says on its Redzone website.
Republicans see Rahall's seat as a unique pick-up opportunity, since he won his 2012 race with 54 percent of the vote, compared with 56 percent in 2010 and 67 percent in 2008.
"We just keep inching closer; we've just yet to punch through, so to speak," Lucas said.
Mark Blankenship, a political strategist from West Virginia, said the answer for the GOP might be a better challenger. The game could change if someone like state Sen. Bill Cole (R), a well-known auto dealer, throws his hat in the ring and decides to self-finance.
While Rahall is consistent in his pro-industry rhetoric -- a criterion for any Mountain State lawmaker -- Blankenship predicted that his district would find his budget vote troubling.
The impoverished 1st District is becoming less patient with its longtime representative, he said. While reports of his demise may be exaggerated, "is he growing more vulnerable? Sure."
Not so, said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
"I would say he's less vulnerable than many outside commentators have credited him [with being] in the past and appear to be crediting him now," Rupp said.
Rahall is viewed to be a pro-coal lawmaker by the people who elect him year after year, Rupp said, which is important. And the congressman's party affiliation has even helped him in some cases, allowing him to take the part of the coal miners in skirmishes with mine owners.
Often in tandem with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Rahall has sponsored several bills to protect miners' safety and financial interests. Last week, he offered a bill aimed at safeguarding miners' pension funds in response to a court decision allowing Patriot Coal to impose deep cuts on benefits for already-retired former employees (Greenwire, April 3).
"He is aiming to support a constituency -- in this case, the very important symbolic and practical constituency of the coal miner," Rupp said. "It allows him to adopt those Democratic liberal positions while at the same time not adopting anti-coal industry policies."
Party labels vs. local priorities
It also hasn't proved effective to try to link West Virginia Democrats to President Obama's regulatory policies -- a strategy that failed to help Republicans topple Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) last year.
This is in part because West Virginia's red roots aren't very deep, said Rupp. While it went overwhelmingly for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for president last year over Obama, the Mountain State had an all-Democratic congressional delegation as recently as 2000. And Republicans haven't controlled the state Legislature since 1931.
Rupp said outside commentators overestimate the extent to which Mountain State voters care about non-West Virginia marquee issues like the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Republicans hope will be another Achilles' heel for Rahall.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking Democrat has carved out a nuanced position for himself on the oil sands pipeline, supporting the project while opposing legislation Republicans advanced through his committee that would grant TransCanada Corp. an automatic permit to build it.
"In my opinion, that kills the pipeline," Rahall said of the bill, which has since passed the House.
If Congress granted TransCanada its permit without going through the necessary review and permitting channels, it would lead to "endless, infinitum lawsuits" that would ultimately prevent the pipeline from being built, he said.
Republicans jumped on the issue as likely to irk Rahall's voters. "West Virginians are very concerned about energy independence," Lucas said.
But Rupp predicted voters wouldn't care. Transportation projects in West Virginia are more important to West Virginians than a pipeline elsewhere, he said. And Rahall's committee post means that he is well-placed to help his home state to badly needed federal dollars.
"What is he promising? What Washington politicians have been promising [West Virginia] for the last 50 years, and that's good roads," he said.
West Virginia counts on federal dollars more than most states because of its mountainous terrain, which adds greatly to the cost of roads, and because its small, relatively poor state tax base can't handle the cost of its own projects.
Rahall said he gets at least as many constituent calls about roads as he does about energy issues. He declined to say whether he hoped to direct any funds home to his state as part of an upcoming highway bill, but said that when the current funding expires in 2014, a new "robust" measure would be important.
Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said Rahall has been considered a good provider of revenue for roads and bridges.
"Rahall's position on the Transportation Committee has been real helpful for us," he said.
Rahall had been a "hero" by helping to combat proposed rollbacks in funding as part of the two-year transportation bill enacted last year, he said.
But Lucas said that Rahall had so far done little on the Transportation Committee to help his constituents. He pointed to the long-delayed King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway as particular disappointments.