For Ohio's rural districts, any threat to the coal mines or the plants powered by them is also a threat to the jobs and livelihood of the region. That has made it easy for Republicans to paint Democratic incumbents who voted for the House energy bill as job killers.
But even as Republicans nip at their heels, two Democrats are not backing down from their vote on the "American Clean Energy and Security Act." Reps. Zack Space and John Boccieri have instead gone on the offensive with their clean energy views, pitching them as potential antidotes for the state's unemployment woes.
Clean energy has emerged as a key campaign issue across the state but especially for the two Democrats trying to preserve their seats in traditionally Republican, rural districts. Boccieri, a one-term incumbent, has called for less reliance on fossil fuels but also wants to see the country expand its use of renewable power sources. He said he actively worked with Democratic House leadership on the energy bill to craft a solution that protects coal jobs.
But even as Boccieri is pegged a moderate, the district's first Democrat since 1951 has had trouble defending his record, and his race against businessman Jim Renacci is now considered a tossup.
Space, on the other hand, has positioned himself as a conservative Democrat, voting against the health care bill and securing an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. Space even voted against President Obama's most recent budget proposal and was identified in The Washington Post as one of the Democrats least likely to vote with the party.
But his votes for the energy bill, stimulus package and initial support for health care reform have allowed his opponents to paint him as a liberal. Now Space -- who took the seat in 2006 after former Rep. Bob Ney (R) resigned after pleading guilty to charges relating to the Jack Abramoff scandal -- is embroiled in his tightest re-election bid against state Sen. Bob Gibbs (R).
Gibbs and Renacci have both taken direct aim at the energy bill votes, calling the bill a jobs killer and a detriment to the coal industry that supports the region. Renacci has vowed to oppose any "national energy tax," and his website states a need for "lower taxes, not higher taxes" and "more jobs, not fewer jobs."
"We need to make sure the cap-and-trade legislation does not rear its head," he told the Massillon Independent. "If it does, I would think any congressman in this district should vote against it when 88 percent of our energy is coal-based."
Gibbs, on the other hand, has rejected the idea that climate change is man-made and stated in a campaign ad that the energy bill would cost Ohio families $1,761 a year. He is promising to maintain coal jobs and stop any anti-coal legislation that would ultimately raise costs for factories.
The state has lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 1990, a fact both Republicans are highlighting in their ads and literature. Most policy discussions in the state go back to jobs, but the energy debate has particularly turned in that direction. Even the ideological differences between Space and Gibbs on climate change have taken a back seat to estimates of job gains and losses.
"There's no question that when we talk about trying to rebuild the economy, clean tech always comes up," said Steve Caminati, spokesman for the Ohio Business Council for a Clean Economy. "I think the environmental messages aren't bad, but with 10 percent unemployment, everybody's focused on jobs."
Even Rep. Charlie Wilson, a conservative Democrat from the nearby 6th District, has come out strongly against the energy legislation, campaigning on his refusal to vote for the bill to protect the region's jobs.
As other Democrats seek to brush aside their energy bill vote, both Space and Boccieri have embraced it and tried to pitch it as a job creation tool. Boccieri's website proclaims a need to invest in renewable energy while protecting coal and fossil fuels, and on the trail, he has refused to back down from his votes.
"If standing up for these things costs me the election, then it does. But I stood up for what's right," Boccieri said during an October roundtable with business leaders.
Space even got a boost last month with the announcement of a massive solar project in his district. The plant at the Wilds, which is said to be the largest solar plant east of the Mississippi, is expected to add 600 jobs.
"This project is part of my all-of-the-above energy strategy to invest in new technologies across the energy spectrum, including the abundant coal that God has blessed us with," Space said in a statement. "This kind of private-sector investment is exactly what we need to get out of our economic troubles."
Camenati said announcements like that would help Space and Boccieri reframe the debate. He said both candidates were on solid ground when talking about green energy, which many Ohioans support and has become a popular talking point in the state's government. But Camenati, who also works for the Melamed Communications group, said they needed to get past the Republicans' "cap and tax" arguments and turn the discussion back to job creation.
"I think generally, people in this area think clean energy is a good thing and we should be investing in it -- when you're able to overcome this false argument that it's a giant energy tax and you're able to have a talk about it," Camenati said.
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