Democrats in Appalachia are running away from the Obama administration's coal record like their political lives depend on it.
They may be right.
After decades in Democrats' hands, much of the mountain corridor -- a string of districts running through West Virginia and along the edges of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee -- has drifted toward Republicans in national elections. Energy issues have driven the switch, particularly since 2000, when Al Gore came to West Virginia touting a carbon-free future and became the fourth Democratic presidential candidate to lose the state since the start of the Great Depression. A Democrat has not won West Virginia since, and in 2008, Republican White House nominee John McCain won every House district in the region, including the eight currently held by Democrats.
The two years since have done nothing to bolster ties between the Democratic Party and the coal industry, particularly in Appalachia.
Along with the president's push for limits on greenhouse gas emissions -- a proposal panned by most U.S. coal companies -- U.S. EPA in April singled out the six states for special restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining. EPA also stopped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing permits for 79 surface and mountaintop mines in the region, saying they would have violated the Clean Water Act. To date, six of those permits have been approved.
"I think there is a danger for Democrats that being seen as a Democrat means being seen as being a supporter of Obama's EPA," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. "There is a risk for Democratic candidates to be tied to it, if they let themselves."
But the region's House candidates and incumbents are trying to maintain their own Democratic brand, one more friendly to their hometown fossil fuel.
"West Virginians feel that the national Democratic Party abandoned them," said Curtis Wilkerson, campaign manager for Mike Oliverio, the Democrats' candidate for West Virginia's 1st District. "West Virginia voters see a huge difference between West Virginia Democrats and national Democrats. It's not [West Virginia Democrats'] fault that some people in the party have tried to take it to these extreme ends."
But while Appalachia's Democrats try to separate themselves from Obama's coal record, Republicans are doing everything they can to fuse the two in voters' minds come November.
"Your position as a Democrat in Congress can be that you support coal, but the leadership of the Democrat Party in Washington is clearly anti-coal," said Mike Stuart, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. "If your leadership is vehemently anti-coal, what good will it do for us in West Virginia?"
To carve out their own energy identity, Appalachian veterans are pointing to a long track record of supporting the coal industry. Among them is Rep. Nick Rahall (D), who has represented the southern third of West Virginia for 17 terms.
Standing in the way of an 18th is Elliot "Spike" Maynard, a well-heeled Republican challenger with close ties to coal industry executives, including Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship.
But Rahall -- who once jumped out an airplane in a tribute to the coal industry -- is hoping his voting record can carry him through. He was one of 44 House Democrats to vote against his party's passage of a bill capping greenhouse gas emissions last summer, and he has been among the loudest voices in Congress condemning EPA's new mountaintop permitting rules.
He also blasted the Obama administration for opposing legislation that would use leftover mine cleanup funding to bolster pension plans for retired coal miners. The administration wants to use the leftover money to cut the deficit.
Much of the coal industry is supporting Rahall in 2010. Two of Rahall's top three campaign contributors are coal mining companies Patriot Coal Corp. and Peabody Energy Corp. Together, their political action committees have kicked nearly $30,000 to his campaign.
Recent polls suggest voters are falling in line as well. Rahall held a 53 to 37 percent edge over Maynard in a poll conducted earlier this month by the conservative advocacy group American Action Forum.
But the International Coal Group and other operators are backing Maynard, and Massey's Blankenship is expected to launch an anti-Rahall blitz as the election nears.
"Blankenship hasn't rolled out his big guns," said Smith, whose union has endorsed Rahall and donated $10,000 to his campaign. "I think everybody expects that race to tighten a little bit."
Newcomers face uphill climb
For Democrats with less seniority, the races are tight enough already.
Representatives who won their seats during the more Democrat-friendly elections of 2006 and 2008 will find it more difficult to prove their coal credentials, said Anthony Nownes, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee.
That is the conundrum facing Rep. Zack Space, a two-term Democratic incumbent from southeastern Ohio locked in a close race with state Sen. Bob Gibbs (R).
Ohio's 18th District is conservative -- McCain took 53 percent of the vote in 2008 to Obama's 45 percent -- but Space has navigated it thus far. In 2006, he took 62 percent of the vote to win the seat vacated by longtime Republican incumbent Bob Ney, who resigned after getting tied up in the Jack Abramoff ethics scandal. And in 2008, Space trounced challenger Fred Dailey by a 20-point margin and collected nearly 10 times as much as his opponent in campaign funds.
But according to On Message Inc., a Republican polling firm, Space and Gibbs are currently in a dead heat, and energy issues have taken center stage.
Space is running as a pro-coal candidate, but that message is complicated by his vote for the Democrats' cap-and-trade bill.
Gibbs has made Space's energy stance a cornerstone of his campaign. "Zack Space voted for Cap-and-Trade even though he knew full well that it could cost Ohioans over 100,000 jobs," Gibbs proclaims on his website.
Space's office and campaign declined to comment on the vote.
Smith, of the miners union, said that Space had used his position to include more coal-friendly provisions to the bill such as funding for carbon capture and storage technology. Those efforts, he said, were enough to win the union's endorsement and a $10,000 campaign contribution.
The industry has been less forgiving. The Ohio Coal Association -- a consortium of state coal operators -- had given $2,500 to Gibbs through Aug. 1. The Ohio Coal Association also donated $1,000 to Space's campaign but that was before his cap-and-trade vote last summer, said President Mike Carey.
"I don't think there is any doubt that that vote will hurt him in November," Carey said. "Very rarely do you find anybody in eastern Ohio who will tell you that cap and trade is a good thing."
West Virginia Democrat tests party's tolerance
But even the Democrats' loudest opponents of climate legislation are getting heat over the issue.
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), a 14-term incumbent from northern West Virginia, voted against the bill but that did not keep it from haunting him during his failed bid for this year's Democratic nomination. Mollohan's opponent, Oliverio, argued the incumbent did not oppose the bill soon enough or work hard enough to convince his colleagues to vote it down.
Now, Republicans are turning that argument back on Oliverio in his duel with Republican nominee David McKinley.
Regardless of Oliverio's position on coal, supporting him is supporting an anti-coal Democratic majority, said Stuart, chairman of the state GOP.
"West Virginians are overwhelmingly interested in sending a message to the Obama administration, and the only way they can do that is by sending Republicans to Congress," Stuart said.
The tactic may be paying off. Despite Democrats' huge edge in registered voters, the seat is a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election tracker.
To fight back, Oliverio is trumpeting his opposition to cap and trade -- as well as his support for the coal industry -- and accusing Republicans of distorting the record. "The Republicans don't want to have a campaign against anyone who is on the ballot," said Wilkerson, Oliverio's campaign manager. "They want to run against the environmental lobby and Nancy Pelosi."
But in trying to separate himself from Democrats, Oliverio is pushing the limits of what the national party and its allies are willing to tolerate.
Oliverio created a flap in April when he said he hoped someone other than Pelosi would be the House speaker next year. Wilkerson rolled back his boss' comments in May, telling reporters that Oliverio would support whomever the Democrats chose as speaker, if they hold on to the majority -- despite his split with Pelosi on the climate bill.
And unions are still smarting over Oliverio's defeat of Mollohan, a longtime champion of organized labor and the coal industry.
The United Mine Workers of America spent $20,000 supporting Mollohan in the primary -- its largest contribution to any candidate so far this election cycle -- and is withholding any endorsements in the Oliverio-McKinley race. So is the West Virginia AFL-CIO, which endorsed every other West Virginia Democrat running for Congress.
UWMA's Smith said Oliverio had accused Mollohan of not voting "hard enough" against the climate bill. "That's frankly a specious argument," Smith said. "They can't say he voted for cap and trade so they had to make up something else."
Appalachian greens hope for friendlier future
Environmental groups in the region are hoping future Democrats cool to coal and move closer to the party's mainstream on climate issues.
"The bottom line in Central Appalachia is that the coal industry's political influence has long outlived its ability to provide jobs in Appalachian coal fields," said J.W. Randolph, legislative associate for Appalachian Voices, an environmental and social justice advocacy group. "The representatives who will have success in the future are focusing on economic diversification."
Randolph said the political tide had already begun to turn, particularly in the Senate, where Tennessee's Lamar Alexander (R) is co-sponsor of a bill that would ban or severely restrict mountaintop removal mining in the region. And in Kentucky, Democratic Senate nominee Jack Conway -- who is running a tight race against Republican Rand Paul for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Bunning (R) -- has said that mountaintop removal mining needs to be accompanied by environmental regulations.
But neither party in Appalachia will turn on coal any time soon, said Susan Hunter, a political science professor specializing in energy and environmental issues at West Virginia University.
"Coal is too important here for somebody to run against it," Hunter said.
If alternative sources -- including wind power -- were immediately available to take coal's role in the economy, it might gain some support, but right now residents of Appalachia remain skeptical, and regional support for the climate bill is on the wane anyway, Hunter said.
"People are becoming anti-climate change legislation in general. You don't have to say it's anti-coal," Hunter said. "Republicans can sell that argument pretty easily right now."