Coal-State Democrats a Dying Breed

Rep.-elect Bill Enyart, D-Ill. is seen on stage during a news conference with newly elected Democratic House members, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (National Journal)

Just as moderates of all stripes are being squeezed out of an increasingly polarized Congress, House Democrats who openly support the coal industry are fast becoming an endangered species.

In the last Congress, 14 Democrats were proud members of the Congressional Coal Caucus, an unofficial coalition of coal-state House members that was organized in 2010 and has become increasingly dominated by Republicans.

This year, as the Environmental Protection Agency steps up pressure on coal-fired power plants to reduce the carbon emissions linked to climate change, the number of Democrats in the caucus has dwindled to six.

The cochair of the coal caucus, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is troubled by the growing imbalance in a group that now boasts 67 Republican members.

"We need it to be bipartisan. We've been trying to ramp up our Democratic membership, especially in light of what happened today," Capito said Friday after EPA unveiled proposed regulations to control greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants. The rules, if made final as planned by the Obama administration, will hit hardest on coal-fired plants and could significantly harm the coal industry.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Bill Enyart, whose southern Illinois district is a big coal-producer, didn't hesitate to join the caucus after his January swearing-in. "I think it's absolutely critical that [coal-country residents] have Democrats representing them," Enyart said. "Who better to have influence in a Democratic administration?"

But the administration Enyart hopes to influence is one that some in his party feel has abandoned coal-country Democrats, leaving them to fend for themselves. Former Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., is one, after losing a reelection bid last fall to Republican Andy Barr, who zeroed in on Chandler's support for a cap-and-trade plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions pushed by President Obama in 2009.

"It was virtually impossible for me to separate myself from [the national Democratic Party]," Chandler said. "It wasn't an accident that the president was the star attraction of my opponent's ads.

"I tried to talk to people about that, and nobody wanted to hear it," he said. "They had made up their mind that anything that was done with the Obama administration had to be bad for coal. There's a national policy that has been demonized in [coal] areas."

Another factor hurting moderate Democrats, Chandler said, is the coal industry's rigid litmus tests. "If you're in coal country, you've got to support the coal industry 100 percent," he said. "Ninety-nine percent won't get it done.... I've been very supportive of the coal industry and coal jobs, but at the same time I voted for the cap-and-trade law."

Former Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., may know better than anyone the challenges of a coal-country Democrat. Thanks to redistricting, Altmire was lumped into a district with another Democrat, then-Rep. Mark Critz, and was targeted by environmental and labor groups for his moderate votes. Altmire lost the primary in a tight campaign, then watched Critz face off against Republican Keith Rothfus, who linked him to Obama's "war on coal." Critz ran ads highlighting his splits with Obama on energy policy and earned nearly 10 times more financial support from the coal industry; it still wasn't enough to overcome the district's 9-point Republican edge.

"People in Congress are representing districts that are drawn in a way that the extremes hold the influence," Altmire said. "Most members who are in Congress represent districts where the only thing they hear is one-sided." That hurts swing-district members, he said, when leaders push issues that excite their base but turn off conservatives and independents.

Losing two Democrats in a single district, he said, should give the party pause as it weighs its energy agenda. "Both [Critz and I] were in the Coal Caucus, and now we've been replaced by [a member who is] much further to the right," Altmire said.  "The party might want to take a look at that.... Do you feel like you got what you wanted there?"

Enyart said coal-state Democrats were hurt by the nationally funded "war on coal" campaign designed to hurt Obama. "It was a purely partisan issue aimed at presidential politics," he said. "I don't believe that the president had a war on coal," but the perception was strong among many voters.

Capito said the administration was responsible for some Democratic losses. "A lot of them lost along the Ohio River and southwest Virginia, so I would say absolutely" that the president's policies hurt Democrats, she said. "You can't defend it."

A Democratic operative in Pennsylvania, who requested anonymity to protect a current candidate, said Democratic leadership isn't entirely to blame for the party's losses in coal country. "The one thing [former Speaker] Nancy Pelosi never did was push the Democrats in [coal] regions on these issues," he said. "Her philosophy was 'take care of your district first.' [Members] never got any blowback from Democratic leadership on [independent] votes."

Altmire took a different view. "If [national Democrats], as they have done in the past, try to punish the coal Democrats for their votes, there are unintended consequences in the form of tea-party Republicans who will take over those seats and never vote with the Democrats."

The other Democrats currently in the coal caucus are Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, Jim Matheson of Utah, and Tim Ryan of Ohio. None responded to requests for comment on the caucus, but Rahall and Enyart did send out press releases criticizing the new EPA coal-plant regulations.

At least one coal-industry leader said Democrats who support coal shouldn't suffer because of their political affiliation. "I'm disappointed that coal has become such a politically charged issue," said Ohio Coal Association President Zane Daniels. "It shouldn't be labeled a 'Republican' or 'Democrat' issue." Still, the Ohio Coal Association's PAC gave to 15 candidates in 2012, and all of them were Republicans.

Another group, CoalBlue, is a coalition of Democrats advocating for coal's place in America's energy future. The group's president, Jon Wood, has seen the difficulty facing his party's coal-country members. "The districts where [Democratic] members of the coal caucus are from tend to be swing districts," he said. "This is the difficulty of a centrist in a polarized world. People in the middle are the ones who get squeezed out."

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to make clear that Jason Altmire was referring to Mark Critz when he was talking about the loss of two Democrats in a single district.