Appalachian Democrats Attempt to Obama-Proof Their Coal Credentials

The struggle to draw a contrast on coal continues to present a challenge for gubernatorial hopefuls in Kentucky and West Virginia.

How do you convince coal-state voters that you support your state's energy industry while the national party hits it with a host of new regulations?

It's a question for which many Appalachian Democrats have failed to find an adequate answer during President Obama's time in office, and for many, that has gone a long way toward getting them ousted from office.

Clearly, simply opposing Obama's agenda isn't enough, as many Democrats who fought Obama's coal agenda at every turn found themselves ousted from office all the same. Take former Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who voted against the Democrats' landmark cap-and-trade climate bill, held tremendous sway over much of Democrats' legislation on the regulation of coal mining via his committee chairmanships in the House, and in 2009 jumped out of a plane as a testament to his support for the coal industry. Five years later, Rahall was solidly defeated by Evan Jenkins, who spent much of the campaign tying Rahall to Obama's regulatory campaign.

But in two governor's races, Democratic candidates again are trying to position themselves as being pro-coal enough for voter support. And if these two candidates can't inoculate themselves from connections to Obama's—and the national Democratic Party's—coal agenda, it's difficult to see other Appalachian Democrats doing so anytime soon.

In Kentucky, the country's third-largest coal-producing state, voters this fall will pick between Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and surprise Republican gubernatorial primary winner Matt Bevin. Conway is part of a legal challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan, which, in the pursuit of reducing the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change, would impose new restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants. The challenge was recently dismissed by a federal court, which said it does not hear challenges to rules that are still in draft form. Conway pledged to move forward with a new legal challenge once the rule is finalized, which is scheduled to happen this summer (though with large-scale rules, rules often run behind schedule).

Conway suggested that, as governor, he would not implement a plan for Kentucky—a step that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged all governors to take. In policy terms, bucking the plan would not only separate Conway from national Democrats, but also from his Democratic would-be predecessor, outgoing Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who has been critical of the proposed standards but also is working to comply with them.

"Jack's work as the only Democratic attorney general to sue President Obama's administration to stop the new EPA coal rules is a clear example of how he always puts Kentucky values first, even if that means breaking with the national party," Conway spokesman Daniel Kemp said.

In West Virginia, where annual coal production trails only Wyoming, the Democrats' pick for governor is Jim Justice, a wealthy businessman who has a long history of owning and operating coal mines throughout the region. Justice told National Journal that he opposes the EPA plan: "The EPA overreach must come to an end. It is not fair to keep changing the rules for our hardworking coal miners. As governor, I would join the bipartisan opposition to these rules and work tirelessly to get our miners back to work by finding alternative uses for coal and diversifying our economy."

Justice cuts an atypical profile for a Democrat. He owns a handful of coal mine operations in West Virginia, and his biggest liability is likely to be a business record so long in the coal industry that it will be picked apart by his opponents. Though Justice is running as a Democrat, he hopes to inoculate himself from traditional partisan attacks by focusing on his individual merits, absent strong attachments to either party. Justice previously identified as a Republican.

All the same, West Virginia State Sen. Bill Cole, who appears to be the likely Republican nominee in the gubernatorial race, already is including coal as a central pillar of his candidacy.

But while Conway and Justice attempt to burnish their pro-coal credentials, it appears that Democratic 2016 presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton will continue advocating Obama's climate and energy policies. In a December speech to the League of Conservation Voters, Clinton said the carbon emissions regulations "must be protected at all costs" and described President Obama's actions to combat climate change as "just the beginning of what is needed."

And barring a stunning reversal of fortune, the difficult economic environment for Appalachian coal will continue, both because of new regulations on coal-fired power plants and mountaintop-removal coal mining, and because of an influx of cheap natural gas that is convincing many utilities to make that their fuel of choice for future plants.

Still, there are signs that Conway's aggressive record may allow him to inoculate himself from some attacks that have sunk other Democrats. So far, national groups such as the Republican Governors Association have focused their efforts on tying Conway to Obama not on coal, but on Conway's support for the Affordable Care Act and the state's ACA-facilitated health exchange, Kynect. But it doesn't take much to draw a connection. In the 2014 Kentucky Senate race, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes was attacked for coal-related comments made by donors to her campaign.

What makes Conway different, however, is that he's running for state office, and that—according to Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett—is an asset, as it allows him to act independently of Obama and a Democratic Senate agenda led by Sen. Harry Reid.

"First and foremost will be the fact that he'll have no need at all to interact with a gentleman named Harry Reid," Bissett said. "And the fact that Reid is not part of this picture at all helps a lot, because that was of grave concern to us—was any connection to Harry Reid, which [to] some was possibly worse than any connection to President Obama."