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
Alex Brown
Sept. 22, 2013, 8:46 a.m.

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.

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