FRANKFORT, Ky. -- The coal industry is shedding thousands of jobs and facing the government’s most severe crackdown on carbon emissions yet. But king coal still flexes its political muscle in Kentucky and West Virginia, where Republicans and even Democrats try to out-coal one another by cozying up to the industry and slamming President Barack Obama.
In other coal-producing areas such as Ohio and Virginia, Democrats have been able to win even with the industry against them. That’s not an option for politicians in the heart of Appalachia.
Many people here still cling to coal as a source of work and cultural pride, so almost everyone running for office seeks the mantle of coal savior, or at least defender.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican up for re-election, chided his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, for accepting money from "anti-coal activists," including a group that worked closely with the Obama administration on the regulations. Grimes counters that McConnell and his super PAC have taken campaign money from a group whose goals include reducing the number of coal-fired power plants in Texas.
After the new emissions rules were announced June 2, she took out radio and newspaper ads to criticize Obama’s "war on coal." West Virginia senate candidate Natalie Tennant, also a Democrat, called the new rules "reckless and unrealistic" during a trip to southern coalfields.
For many, their identity is tied to the industry.
"My little town is dying. Do you think I’m a fool and going to support somebody that doesn’t support coal?" said David Kennedy, a Harlan County magistrate, business owner and Grimes supporter. "I had a couple of car washes and now I just got one. I depend on these coal miners."
West Virginia, the second biggest coal producer nationally after Wyoming, watched its production drop to 129.5 million tons in 2012, a 22 percent dive over four years. As of last year, about 20,000 people work in West Virginia coal mining.
Only 29 of Kentucky’s 120 counties mine coal, and production dropped 16 percent in 2012 to 91.4 million tons, the lowest level since 1965.
A bipartisan national majority of Americans support limiting greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for climate change, according to a Washington Post/ ABC News poll released Monday.
Fifty-seven percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats support state-level limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and 70 percent of all Americans say the federal government should limit greenhouse gases from power plants.
Grimes’ campaign keeps a close eye on the news, looking for opportunities to laud her coal stance. When Stanford University’s president announced the school was divesting its $18 billion endowment of stock in coal companies, Grimes wrote him a letter saying the decision would "push tens of thousands of one’s own countrymen to the brink of poverty, and perhaps beyond."
McConnell’s biggest trump card may be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who famously said "coal makes us sick." Reid had scheduled a fundraiser for Grimes recently.
Capito’s camp also wants to capitalize on a Reid connection, noting that Tennant received a $10,000 check from Reid’s political committee.
Bill Bissett, executive director of the Kentucky Coal Association, said likely the only thing that would ease his members’ concerns is if Grimes said she would not vote for Reid to be majority leader if she was elected.
"Being affiliated with Leader Reid is a concern, is a serious concern," Bissett said.
Grimes hasn’t made clear whether she would vote for Reid for a leadership position.
McConnell, who is from Louisville, has carefully cultivated his relationship with the predominantly rural industry, from supportive speeches on the floor of the Senate to frequent appearances at pro-coal rallies back home. His campaign and political action committee have collected $271,500 in contributions from mining groups this year, according to the campaign finance tracker Center for Responsive Politics.
Capito has the West Virginia Coal Association’s endorsement and has hauled in $264,100 from mining interests, about 26 times more than Tennant, the center’s data show.
Longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall faces the toughest West Virginia test on coal, even though he has collected coal industry checks.
The 19th-term congressman blasted the EPA last week, telling the state attorney general to tack his name on any lawsuit against the rule.
His race with Republican Evan Jenkins has been bombarded by millions of dollars in outside cash, with the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity painting Rahall as anti-coal.
Republican groups have also blasted Rahall for receiving support from a left-leaning super PAC, which has donors who are carbon-capping advocates. Rahall argues the billionaire Koch brothers are out of touch with down-home West Virginians.