Since last June, Republicans have been using a vote in favor of the House energy and climate bill as ammunition against vulnerable Democrats in the upcoming 2010 midterm election.
But Republicans in West Virginia are going one step further and using the cap-and-trade bill to target two veteran Democrats who actually voted against the bill: Reps. Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan.
Although the filing deadline only closed recently, potential challengers are already attacking the incumbents over coal issues. And Republican state officials argue that voters are starting to believe that their representatives are not doing enough to protect their interests.
"The cap-and-trade, cap-and-tax policy of the Obama administration rammed through the House worry a lot of people here in West Virginia," said Troy Berman, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party. "People's livelihoods are at stake. There was little to no convincing of that position by Rahall and Mollohan until the very last minute when it was clear that their votes wouldn't matter."
Whether that argument takes hold with the public at-large and whether it is enough to even seriously threaten the incumbents remains to be seen.
Both lawmakers have had a stranglehold on their districts -- Mollohan is serving his 14th term and has not had a tight race since 1984; Rahall is serving his 17th term and has not been seriously challenged since 1990. Both are influential lawmakers with decades of seniority on Capitol Hill -- a factor that matters to West Virginia voters. Rahall chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and Mollohan heads up the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee.
As for cap and trade, both have spent much of their career defending the coal industry and one would be hard-pressed to find a vote that could be portrayed as anti-coal.
"If Rahall and Mollohan were not so well-placed in the congressional leadership, coal would be becoming extinct," said West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey. "West Virginia voters know they support coal jobs and the industry."
The fact that the GOP appears intent on challenging the two using the cap-and-trade issue demonstrates that the politics of climate change may linger as a campaign issue in a number of key districts even as it sits on the backburner in Washington.
Political observers have argued that one of the main reasons that Al Gore lost West Virginia in 2000 -- and to a lesser extent the reason that John Kerry and Barack Obama lost it in subsequent elections -- was in no small part due to fears that their policies would harm the coal industries.
"Those fears are still there, they're still palatable, and environmental legislation can be twisted into a public perception that it will diminish jobs," said Marybeth Beller, chairwoman of the political science department at Marshall University.
Primary, general election challengers are emerging
At this point, a number of candidates are lining up on the Republican side, and each Democrat faces one primary challenger.
"I am running for Congress to save coal jobs and jobs that depend on coal," said former state Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard in announcing his bid against Rahall last week.
"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," Maynard added.
The district that Rahall represents covers the Southern portion of the state and is the hub of West Virginia's coal industry.
Maynard has the best name-recognition of any of Rahall's challengers, having previously run for statewide office. But Maynard also has a connection to the coal industry that may cost him politically: He lost a re-election bid for his spot on the state Supreme Court in the 2008 primary after photos surfaced of him and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in Monaco. At the time, Massey Energy had several cases before the state court.
Maynard is a lifelong Democrat who switched to the GOP before announcing his bid against Rahall. Maynard's challengers in the Republican primary include nurse-anesthetist Lee Bias, sales executive Marty Gearheart and attorney Conrad Lucas.
An even larger field has emerged to challenge Mollohan, though Republicans in Washington appear to believe that former state Republican Party Chairman David McKinley is the strongest candidate.
In announcing his bid last month, McKinley pointed to the need to protect the coal industry as one of the main reasons for his entry into the race. "We need a representative in Congress that will vote against legislation that hurts our local industries and increases taxes on everyone," said McKinley in a statement announcing his candidacy. "Coal is the backbone of our state's economy and the attacks on coal from Washington, D.C., must be stopped."
Other GOP hopefuls include former state Sen. Sarah Minear and Morgantown businessman Mac Warner.
Mollohan's political standing has taken a hit from a four-year federal investigation into his finances, though the investigation was closed last month with no charges filed. Though coal remains a political issue in Mollohan's part of the state, the industry is not as prevalent as it was in the past and, experts say, that topic may be far less of a factor there than in Rahall's district.
Mollohan may even have a strong primary challenge from state Sen. Mike Oliverio (D), who, just like the congressmen's GOP challengers, has taken shots over the climate change issue.
"Frankly, I'm angry," Oliverio said, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. "Angry at both sides of the aisle who spend without regard for the future while borrowing money from China to pay for it."
The state's third representative is Shelly Moore Capito (R), who does not figure to face a serious challenge this year.
Just how vulnerable are they?
Though Republicans may try to make the case that both Rahall and Mollohan have not been strong enough advocates for the coal industry, some West Virginia political observers doubt that such an argument will resonate much with voters.
"Neither congressmen Mollohan nor Rahall have a history of voting against industries that are prominent in their districts," said Beller of Marshall University. "We don't have elected leaders in this state that are anti-coal."
And Democrats say that Mollohan and Rahall's track records are too long to shift voter opinion in one cycle. "Cap and trade is a national conversation but the local conversation is jobs," said Casey of the state Democratic Party. "West Virginia voters know the congressmen support coal jobs and have supported those jobs for decades, and that is why they will vote for them."
Both Rahall and Mollohan, who declined to comment for this story, have long had support from key segments of the coal industry. In past elections they have both been endorsed by the United Mine Workers union and have received numerous campaign contributions from coal interests.
Even environmentalists grudgingly say that it will be hard to paint Rahall and Mollohan as anything other than coal allies.
"The top Democrats, they are totally in the pocket of Big Coal and they are staunchly against cap and trade," said Jim Sconyers, chairman of the West Virginia branch of the Sierra Club. "I'm not seeing it as a partisan issue, it's an issue alright, but it's not Republican versus Democrats."
Rahall and Mollohan have joined the coal caucus formed by Capito. Rahall has even clashed with the Obama administration on coal issues -- just yesterday he blasted the administration for cutting funds for surface coal mine permits and encouraging states to increase coal taxes to make up the difference (E&ENews PM, Feb. 4).
Republicans say those actions mean relatively little compared to the massive cap-and-trade bill they say the two have not worked to stop. "People are angry. People are concerned and they know that even discussing this legislation impacts jobs in West Virginia," said Berman of the state GOP.
There is also the national political climate to consider, and Republicans hope that an anti-incumbent, anti-President Obama, mood is prevalent in West Virginia. They also note that the stranglehold that Democrats had on West Virginia politics is slipping -- Republicans have won there in the last three presidential elections and the Republican candidate for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, won all three districts by double-digit margins in 2008.
Beller said Rahall and Mollohan have consistently worked to maintain a connection to their districts that stretch outside party affiliation and if any Democrats are likely to survive a national GOP landslide, it is those two. "I think both congressmen, Mollohan and Rahall, are very close to their constituents in their district," Beller said. "If they feel a long-standing attachment, this national movement at the end of the day is not going to have a strong effect."
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