SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—Sen. Claire McCaskill was learning more than she probably ever wanted to know about how to retrofit a coal-fired power plant.
On a recent tour of the John Twitty Energy Center, a 200-megawatt coal generator that keeps the lights on in Springfield, a city that could play an outsized role in determining whether McCaskill has a political future, the first-term Democrat stopped in the control room to ask questions about the antipollution scrubbers being installed: Which toxins will the technology strip from the coal smoke—mercury, soot, sulfur dioxide? Would it keep the plant in full compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Air Act regulations?
Sporting a battered white hard-hat, McCaskill walked through a clanging, pipe-filled boiler room in the heart of the plant, pressing for more details on the cost of the retrofit and how much of that cost will be passed on to Springfield households. The answers: $200 million—and all of it.
News like that spells trouble for McCaskill’s reelection hopes, and those of other Democrats from 2012 battleground states (including Ohio, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) where coal is crucial to the economy and where the industry and the GOP have effectively declared war on the Obama administration. Cheap coal-fired electricity is the economic lifeblood of the American Midwest. Drive through the steel towns of Ohio and Michigan, the farms of Indiana, and the cattle ranches of western Missouri and you’ll spot those ubiquitous icons of the Midwestern landscape—red-and-white striped smokestacks, belching coal smog into the open sky.
Missouri and Ohio, where Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown will also fight for his political future this fall, offer the most vivid picture of the Midwest’s dependence on coal—and the role it will play in the fate of the Senate. Coal plants generate more than 80 percent of each state’s electricity at rates 20 percent cheaper than the national average. Nationwide, only 45 percent of electricity comes from coal. Giant producers Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are headquartered in St. Louis. The mega-utility American Electric Power, which owns a fleet of coal-fired plants in 11 states, is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.
So anything that makes coal-fired power more expensive is going to mean problems for Democrats such as McCaskill and Brown, both of whom already faced uphill climbs to reelection this year. In some ways, the gruff, gravel-voiced Brown, whom National Journal ranked as the fifth-most-liberal member of the Senate in 2011 (tied with environmentalist Sen. Barbara Boxer of California), and the effusive, matronly McCaskill, who ranked 50th-most-liberal—have little in common. But their political lives are both tied to the coal that is so crucial to the economies of their home states.
One of the hallmarks of President Obama’s administration has been a slate of controversial environmental regulations that crack down on toxic coal pollution. The rules, which are required under a 1990 law, will slash coal emissions that contribute to asthma, birth defects, lung disease, and environmental damage. They will also, eventually, lead to the shutdown of hundreds of coal-fired power plants. Aside from their positive effects on Americans’ health, the rules are one of Obama’s biggest gifts to environmentalists—and one of the biggest targets of his political opponents. Power companies have already announced that the regulations will shutter half a dozen plants in Ohio alone, with more closures throughout the Midwest to come.
But the fight over coal rules is just one of the battles in the coming war over energy, which is emerging as a top-tier issue in the 2012 campaigns. Oil and gasoline prices are skyrocketing and may break records this summer, slowing the economic recovery. Obama’s rejection of the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Canada to Texas, has become a political lightning rod, as has his doubling down on support for clean-energy programs, despite the controversy over Solyndra, the federally backed solar company that went bankrupt.
Republicans, interest groups, and a bevy of conservative super PACs, many of which have close financial ties to coal and oil companies, are attacking the president on every flank of the energy conflict. At the same time, they’re fanning out to a handful of battleground states where they think an aggressively fought and funded campaign can pick off four of the Democrats whom Republicans need to defeat to take control of the Senate.
The Missouri and Ohio Senate races will be two of the most hotly contested and closely watched of these battles. Already, conservative groups have spent more money on efforts to unseat Brown in Ohio than they have on any other Senate race, and the spending in Missouri from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads isn’t far behind.
“It’s really hard,” McCaskill says after the tour of the coal plant in Springfield. “And I would be less than honest if I didn’t say I wasn’t scared. It’s a whole new world. I worry, because there are a lot of groups who would love to get rid of me—besides Karl Rove.”
One with very deep pockets is the chamber, which spent $33 million in 2010 as part of the GOP’s successful effort to retake the House by unseating members who had voted for the health care law and cap-and-trade bills. It is now dedicating its considerable resources to ensuring that coal, oil, and industry-friendly Republicans retake the Senate.
“This will be the largest effort in the 100-year history of the chamber,” said Rob Engstrom, the business group’s national political director. “Energy will be a centerpiece of our campaign, and Ohio and Missouri will be early and significant parts of the campaign.”
Already, the chamber is running ads on the Missouri airwaves painting the moderate McCaskill as a pro-Obama, anti-business job killer. “We usually wait until after Labor Day to get involved, but our members in energy feel like the last couple of years have been an attack on their bottom line, in the halls of Congress and the regulatory arena,” Engstrom said. “People like Claire and Sherrod Brown are part of that. We will tether the candidates to the president.”
In fighting back, McCaskill and Brown are adopting different strategies. Brown, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, a steadfast backer of unions, and a true believer in President Obama’s vision of a clean-energy economy, will stand with the president in a state that Obama must win if he wishes to stay in the White House. McCaskill, on the other hand, needs to keep some real distance from Obama, with whom she is famously close friends, in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton. To win, she may have to walk her own path on energy issues, as difficult as that may be, leaving herself open to attacks from environmentalists on the left along with those from pro-business groups on the right.
“I’ve found myself in a no-man’s-land,” McCaskill says.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
McCaskill, 58, doesn’t yet know who will be her Republican opponent this fall—former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Rep. Todd Akin, and businessman John Brunner are vying for the nomination to take her on. But so far, that hasn’t mattered much. Whoever secures the nomination will carry on the fight that the party has already launched. Last month, the Missouri GOP attacked her as “Chameleon Claire,” blasting her for supporting “Barack Obama’s war on energy.”
In 2008, McCaskill was one of the first Democratic senators to support Obama, but she has been slowly walking away from his policies ever since. When her Senate colleagues in 2010 tried to craft a climate-change bill curbing carbon emissions, McCaskill made it a point never to answer questions from the press about her views on the issue; she ultimately came out against it.
But now, on the trail, she has no choice but to confront the question of coal head-on. McCaskill spent three weeks in January traveling the state on what her Senate office called an “energy jobs” tour. Her goal: to publicly carve out a middle ground in which she fights to keep Missouri’s energy rates low—possibly by pushing to delay the coal regulations, while also somehow making a case to her constituents about why she won’t fight to overturn them altogether.
In a coffeehouse in downtown Kansas City, McCaskill, who has said that she believes that climate change is real, explained why she thinks that the EPA’s regulations should be delayed or watered down. “It’s about the people of Missouri, whose utility bills are going to go up,” she said. “I would love it if we didn’t have to rely on coal. And the more quickly we could not rely as much on coal, the better. The more regulations that we could get on coal that are affordable, the better.”
She added, “But I’m not going to go down a path that’s going to make it unaffordable for a state that’s struggling in terms of its economy. Manufacturing is a huge thing in our state. And those costs can be devastating to manufacturing.”
McCaskill can’t embrace the local industry too fervently, however. Environmental groups have spent more than half a million dollars beating her up for opposing the cap-and-trade legislation. “I sometimes boast that I think I’m the only U.S. senator that had the Far Left and the Far Right run TV ads against me last year,” she said.
Still, McCaskill, as she needs to now, wears some abuse as a badge of honor.
“I’ve been in time-out with my caucus with some regularity,” she said. “I’ve had to sit through umpteen caucus meetings where I was derided, where there was open anger at me,” particularly, she said, from liberal environmentalists such as Boxer. “I’ve been on the receiving end of some sharp words from her.”
The cap-and-trade bill cost several Democrats from coal states their jobs in 2010, and Obama’s EPA remains notoriously unpopular in these parts, handing McCaskill a formidable challenge to alter impressions of her as standing lockstep with the administration.
“The EPA regulations will have an enormous effect on the elections in 2012. It will be a huge deal in Missouri,” said James Harris, a Republican strategist in the state. “The EPA’s rules will have an impact on Missouri’s manufacturers, utilities, ratepayers. The current administration and people like Claire McCaskill treat coal like it’s toxic or a problem.”
At Gray’s Café in Butler, Mo., over a lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn, cattle farmers Bill Freeman and Raymond Daehl agreed that they don’t like Obama or the coal regulations, but they diverged on their views of McCaskill.
Butler, a run-down hamlet near the Kansas border, is nicknamed “Electric City” because it was the first town west of the Mississippi River to get electrified. Now, it’s hard to find a place to buy a lightbulb on the town’s main drag, U.S. 71, which is lined by a bleak array of shuttered storefronts. “This is coal country,” Freeman said. “They just keep putting more regulations on the coal-burning plant; they up the price of electricity because of these regulations. If you burn coal, you’re going to have smoke. If you have smoke, you’re going to have pollution. If you put regulations on the pollution, the price is going to go up.”
But he added, “Claire’s Claire, Obama’s Obama. Somebody made the mistake of putting those two together. And that may hurt her. She got associated with him. But if you’re going to be who you are, be who you are. I don’t think she rides on his coattails.”
Freeman’s friend Daehl said that, for him, the association is clear. “I did not vote for her, and I will not vote for her. Her and Obama’s together, just like this,” he said, crossing two fingers together.
Despite many Missouri voters’ dislike of Obama, McCaskill invited him to the Show-Me State in November to campaign for her. “Nothing would be phonier than me pretending I didn’t support Barack Obama and that he’s not my friend,” she said. “But I’m going to be honest with Missourians that I’ve agreed with him sometimes and not agreed with him sometimes. I was trying to squash this narrative that ‘she’s going to run from him and hide from him,’ ” McCaskill said. “And he said, ‘You’re not doing this because you’re worried about hurting my feelings?’ I said, ‘I’m not worried about hurting your feelings.’ ”
But she added that Obama, keeping in mind the way he is viewed in the state, told her, “I bet when I come to Missouri, you would like me to tell them what a pain you are.” “And I said, ‘That would be fine.’ ”
Roy Temple, a Missouri Democratic strategist, said that in the end, emphasizing that difference will help her. “The Obama position on clean air and coal, that’s all helpful. Because if you get to be in a different place than him, it’s a proof point that about you’re about Missouri—you’re not about him, you’re not about party, you’re not about a national Democratic agenda.”
Temple noted, “If voters in Missouri have the impression that she’s getting the shit kicked out of her by the Left, and the shit kicked out of her by the Right, that’s good for her.”
CANARY IN A COAL MINE
Sherrod Brown has a complicated relationship with coal. Obviously, it powers the steel mills, automakers, and factories that are the backbone of Ohio’s economy. But he reminds himself every day that it pollutes—and sometimes kills.
On his lapel, Brown wears a pin depicting a canary in a cage, symbolizing his commitment to protect laborers. The same symbol is on a plaque in his Washington office, which reads, “The canary represents the struggle for economic and social justice in our nation. In the early days of the 20th century, more than 2,000 workers were killed in coal mines every year. Miners took a canary into the mines to warn them of toxic gasses; if the canary died, they knew they had to escape quickly.”
The attacks on Obama’s coal policy threaten to crack apart Brown’s two bases—labor and environmentalists. American Electric Power has fought hard against the administration’s coal rules, asking Brown to push legislation to weaken or delay them. And the utility has asked in a most persuasive way: AEP is the largest contributor to Brown’s campaign, in a year when he’ll probably need to raise more money than ever to remain competitive.
“This is a tough issue for him,” says Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University. “His general instincts are more environmental, but he clearly knows the implications for jobs and the industrial heartland. He will be attacked as someone who is sacrificing jobs to the environment.”
Brown, 59, spent 14 years in the House before running for the Senate in 2006. Back then, he was the challenger attacking the incumbent by tying him to the president, taking down Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by linking him to the then-unpopular George W. Bush.
Ironically, two years ago, when it was McCaskill who was trying to stay silent on energy policy, Brown was the one taking a central role in the cap-and-trade debate. He led a group of Rust Belt Democrats who became known as the “Brown Dogs” and worked closely with the White House and the climate bill’s lead author, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, on ensuring that any climate-change bill included a raft of protections for coal-dependent manufacturing states. At the time, Brown talked regularly with reporters about the issue, setting up press events in the Capitol with renewable-energy manufacturers and gladly acting as a leader on an issue that made—with good political reason as it turned out—many other Democrats uncomfortable.
Now that he’s up for reelection, he seems a lot less comfortable talking about regulating coal. In a chat off the Senate floor about the role that energy will play in the Ohio campaign, Brown wanted to talk about Big Oil, not Big Coal. He was more than willing to slam the chamber for running ads that criticize Brown’s support of Obama’s proposal to roll back $4 billion in annual tax breaks to the oil industry.
“The oil companies are spending money through the chamber of commerce to run attack ads because I want to see oil companies pay a fair rate of taxation. They’re obviously supporting the Republican Party nationally. They’re obviously supporting my opponent,” he said. But pressed on the attacks against Obama’s regulation of the coal plants that power Ohio’s steel- and auto-based economy, Brown replied, “I’ve said what I’m going to say,” and headed to the floor.
Brown’s opponent, 34-year-old state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a rising conservative star, has made Brown’s connection with the coal rules the centerpiece of his attacks on the first-term senator. He has slammed them as “irrational, unnecessary, and job-killing”—a potent claim in a state where the rules have already been blamed for the coming closure of handful of coal-fired plants.
“Why is Sherrod Brown standing idly by and doing nothing while Washington bureaucrats issue job-killing regulations for Ohio?” runs a typical Mandel press release.
The Republican believes that attacks on Obama’s energy policies will drive his campaign against Brown. Mandel has pointed to a study, cited by the Ohio Manufacturer’s Association, concluding that EPA’s rules to cut toxic mercury emissions from coal plants will eliminate 53,500 jobs in the state and increase electricity rates by 13 percent, and noting that Duke Energy and American Electric Power expect to lay off employees in Ohio because of the regulations.
It remains unclear however, whether coal-plant closures are the job-killers that Mandel makes them out to be. AEP has said, for example, that the rules will force it to close the 100-megawatt Picway Power Plant in Lockbourne, Ohio. But Lockbourne doesn’t seem to mind. “We’ve known that plant was going to close for a while,” said Dan Tufts, the town’s administrator. “They’ve been scaling down the plant for years. It’s mostly mechanized now. When it closes, it won’t make much of an economic ripple.”
Mandel is also going after Brown on the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas. The technology has the potential to bring thousands of jobs to Ohio, but Democrats have been hesitant because fracking has been linked to tainted drinking water. EPA is studying the practice’s possible adverse effects—which could lead to increased federal restrictions on the industry.
“The EPA—all these unnecessary regulations are what kill the jobs,” said Travis Considine, Mandel’s spokesman. “It prevents industry from starting up in places like Ohio. It’s the companies that make the steel for the pipes. It impacts the local economy, where people build the tools for these things.”
Justin Barasky, Brown’s campaign manager, said that his boss believes it’s possible to have it both ways. “There’s a way to reduce pollution and create jobs at the same time,” Barasky said. “He thinks it’s a false choice to choose between one and the other. You have jobs and lives. You want to save both.”
Brown, like Obama, is banking on clean energy to provide the path forward, a big political risk in a state where coal is so dominant. While Brown has always been a booster of Ohio’s traditional steel and manufacturing sector, he has also advanced a vision of transforming the Buckeye State into a
Silicon Valley for manufacturing clean-energy supplies.
He has worked to bring dozens of federal grants and tax credits to Ohio for clean-energy projects and is the lead sponsor of a Senate bill to expand those programs. Ohio has become the second-largest solar-panel manufacturer in the country. The Toledo region, which was devastated by the economic recession, now has a rapidly growing solar manufacturing sector, earning it the nickname “Solar Valley.”
And on the campaign trail, Brown, like the president, frames clean-energy programs to Ohio voters as the means to protect American jobs: “We can’t trade a dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on foreign-made sources of energy,” Brown says. “It’s unacceptable that 70 percent of clean-energy components are made outside of the U.S. Extending the advanced-energy manufacturing tax credit will help more American manufacturers create jobs through the production of cutting-edge energy technologies.”
Openly embracing Obama’s policies in a state that is just as likely to flip to Mitt Romney or another eventual GOP nominee for president is freighted with danger. The president’s approval ratings in Ohio, according to a University of Cincinnati poll, stand at about 47 percent, close to his national average. Gasoline prices are climbing daily, and energy experts say the cost per gallon could easily hit records of $4.50 or $5 this summer. Republicans believe that those numbers are enough to sink Obama—and, by association, Brown—in November.
Brown has reason to hope, however. For one thing, he continues to poll well against Mandel. And the long-moribund Ohio economy has shown signs of life. The collapse of the manufacturing sector made the recession especially deep in the state; unemployment reached 10.6 percent in July 2009. The national rate peaked at 10 percent in October of the same year. Since then, Ohio’s recovery has actually outpaced that of the national economy. As of December, the most recent month for which Labor Department data is available, the state’s unemployment rate had fallen to 7.9 percent, comfortably below the national rate of 8.5 percent. Just as it led the economy into recession, gains in manufacturing are leading Ohio’s recovery, too.
David Cohen, a political-science professor at the University of Akron, says that, unlike McCaskill, Brown has made his choice to stand or fall with Obama.
“So it just depends on President Obama’s standing in the fall. If those energy prices skyrocket, and the economy takes a turn for the worse, that will be rough for Sherrod,” Cohen said. “But those unemployment numbers are starting to look better, and there’s been a number of announcements that automakers are going to bump up production in Ohio. So if the energy and economy numbers are good, that could really backfire for Republicans. What looks like a good strategy a year before the election, may be a very bad strategy a month before the election.”
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.