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Rural Dems Complicate Obama's Climate Push

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West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democratic candidate for the Senate, takes aim in a political commercial at cap and trade legislation, a key moment in the 2010 midterm campaign.(youtube.com)

Six months ago, President Obama called Sen. Joe Manchin to discuss legislation that would enhance background checks on gun purchases. Today, as Obama pursues new rules on carbon emissions at power plants, Manchin is probably last on the president's call sheet.

Some of the loudest opposition to Obama's speech on climate change yesterday at Georgetown University came not from Republicans, but from rural Democrats like Manchin. "It's clear now that the President has declared a war on coal," Manchin said in a press release. "The regulations the President wants to force on coal are not feasible. And if it's not feasible, it's not reasonable."

Manchin, who famously (and literally) shot a hole through a copy of cap and trade legislation in an ad during his 2010 re-election bid, got a prime interview on Bret Baier's Special Report last night.

And he's not alone. Rep. Bill Enyart, a freshman Democrat from down-state Illinois, said he would "work tirelessly" against the new mandates. The regulations would "decimate our Southern Illinois coal industry," Enyart said in a statement that's getting picked up by newspapers in his district. Rep. Nick Rahall, a big coal backer who represents southern West Virginia, called the new policy "misguided, misinformed and untenable."

Even Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia, is softening his previous stand on coal, which plays a big role in southwestern Virginia's economy. "While we’re waiting on actual regulations to be proposed, Terry believes any new regulations should balance the need to encourage clean energy with the fact that coal is, and will continue to be, a large portion of Virginia’s energy mix," McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin told the Washington Post.

That's a far cry from 2009, when McAuliffe said he never wanted another coal plant built.

Coal country, once a solid-blue spine of Democratic votes running through the Appalachian Mountains, has been turning reliably red in recent years, as we've catalogued before. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won a vast majority of the 421 counties that belong to the Appalachian Regional Commission; in 2012, President Obama won just 30 of those 421 counties. He came within 10 points of Mitt Romney in just three of West Virginia's 55 counties, even as fellow Democrats Manchin and Rahall cruised to relatively easy wins.

Watch for other rural Democrats to feel pressure to oppose Obama's plan. The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday issued the first of what's likely to be several television-ready spots highlighting the new policy, asking voters to call Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat. The NRCC will spend a small amount of money on digital ads against Peterson, spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said.

With a Republican-controlled House, legislation to achieve Obama's climate change goals was already a bridge too far. The Democratic coal country caucus ensures that any action on climate change will have to come solely from the executive branch.

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