Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) says he'll decide by the end of the month whether to run for Senate against Republican incumbent Rob Portman in 2016. But even before he makes the leap, the coal industry and its GOP allies are smelling blood.
Strickland, as counselor to the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP), introduced a plan yesterday that would boost royalties on companies mining federal coal out West to help struggling communities in the East (Greenwire, Feb. 9).
"This proposal will level the playing field for Appalachian coal, create a fairer system for coal royalties that better reflects the current coal market and raise millions of dollars in revenue for taxpayers that can be reinvested in Appalachian communities," Strickland said.
Even before the announcement, the Ohio Coal Association had released a statement accusing Strickland of betraying Ohio's coal field communities, mainly because of his involvement with CAP, which has supported the Obama administration's proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The National Republican Senatorial Committee was only too happy to distribute the industry group's attack.
"While his organization's liberal donors might like these regulations, Ohio families certainly do not," said Christian Palich, the association's interim president. "This group has consistently lobbied to support President Obama's liberal polices, including the Obama Administration's war on coal."
Palich is a former staffer to Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who has been deeply critical of the president's policies regarding mining and burning coal. Johnson represents the same coal-heavy southeastern Ohio district that Strickland did for six terms before being elected governor in 2006.
"Strickland has clear ties to the southeast, and he actually performed fairly well in this region in his failed bid for re-election as governor in 2010," said University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Kyle Kondik. In a Republican wave year, Strickland lost by 2 percentage points to now-Gov. John Kasich (R), a former House colleague.
But, Kondik added, "If Strickland does in fact run for the Senate, Republicans are going to work to make sure he does not repeat that performance. These attacks on him over coal are a preview of what he will face."
Beyond his ties to CAP, Strickland has also been a loyalist to President Obama and defended the president during GOP attacks in 2012 accusing the White House of waging a war on coal.
"In fact, the president has said just the opposite, and he followed through with resources," Strickland said at the time, touting the administration's funding for research to make coal cleaner and viable amid concerns about climate change.
Strickland also called former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney a flip-flopper on coal. "When it helped him politically at the time," Strickland said in a 2012 conference call, "he even bragged about enforcing strict regulations on the coal industry 'without compromise.'"
The coal industry and its allies only had limited success during the 2012 elections. Their main target, Obama, is still in the White House.
But last year was different. Republicans, using a pro-coal and anti-Obama message, helped defeat 19-term Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). They also flipped the Mountain State's Legislature from Democratic to GOP.
Kondik said Strickland may be "something of a throwback candidate" because he hails from an area that has been increasingly favoring Republicans. Other parts of the state, like the Cincinnati and Columbus areas, have become more important to Democratic hopes.
That said, Kondik warned against overstating the importance of southeastern Ohio's coal communities to Democratic chances statewide. After all, Obama won the state both in 2008 and 2012 while faring poorly in that region.
"I understand the importance, to Republicans, of undercutting Strickland's appeal in his old congressional district," he said. "But the 'war on coal' attack is a message with a limited, regional appeal."
So far, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who is 30 years old, is the only Democrat who has thrown his hat in the Senate race. Other potential Democratic candidates include former Reps. John Boccieri and Betty Sutton. But Strickland, who is 73 and an ordained minister, is the first choice of many national Democratic leaders to take on Portman, who appears to be formidable as the election cycle begins. Portman had $5.8 million in his campaign account at the end of 2014.
Asked yesterday about his involvement with Center for American Progress, Strickland said during a conference call with reporters that he had pushed for research into helping coal communities early on.
And when running for re-election in 2010, before joining CAP, Strickland -- with a 77 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters from his time in Congress -- called on the Obama administration to take economic concerns into account when dealing with climate change and supported delaying planned U.S. EPA rules.
Kasich defeated Strickland, at least in part, by running against the Democrats' renewable energy standards. Strickland said they would create jobs; Kasich said otherwise. Opposition researchers have also dug up a Strickland vote for an energy tax early during the Clinton administration.
Yesterday, at least some industry advocates saw Strickland's actions as an effort to help defuse potential political attacks down the road. Coal companies used to have strong allies in both parties but have been increasingly siding more with the GOP.
"Democrat leaders like Strickland are scrambling for answers in former strongholds of support in Appalachia, and white papers like this one [released yesterday] will do little to regain that support or repair President Obama's image," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Strickland yesterday said his interest in helping coal-field communities started "long before there was any talk of me entering a political race of any kind." He added, "I care about Ohio, I care about a lot of things, I care about coal communities."