The GOP’s landslide victory in the recent midterm election was significant not only because Republicans assumed full control of Congress, but also due to the race and gender barriers that were broken. In South Carolina, Republican Tim Scott was the first black senator elected in the south since Reconstruction and Republican Elise Stefanik became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress when she won New York’s 21st congressional district. Lost in the shuffle however was the Senate race in West Virginia which was overlooked by many since the race was never in doubt. Shelley Moore Capito, a popular congresswoman, won the election to replace longtime Democrat Senator Jay Rockefeller thus becoming the first woman to represent West Virginia in the United States Senate. Besides paving the way for women in West Virginia politics, Capito’s race also represents a shift in how West Virginians are talking about coal, one of the state’s primary economic resources.
Coal might be a dirty word in liberal bastions like New York and Los Angeles, but for many in rural West Virginia, it’s the only way to put food on the table. Democrats have been losing support in coal country over the last few years largely due to the perceived “War on Coal” that Republicans have successfully tied to the EPA’s recent crack down on coal plant emissions which are not expected to kill the coal industry but will certainly cost jobs according to our own Chamber of Commerce. The EPA’s argument that this change in policy will benefit America long term has not resonated with the people of West Virginia who already suffer from one of the highest poverty rates in the country. The coal industry provides a good living for those who are lucky enough to have jobs in the field but the number of active coal mining sites in West Virginia has dropped to below 100 this year compared to 184 at the end of 2012. This decrease in available coal mining jobs has left West Virginians scrambling to find new jobs which is often difficult especially for those who don’t have any experience or training in any line of work besides coal.
West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who Capito will now be serving alongside in Washington, serves as an example of how important it is for politicians in this region to be strong advocates for coal. Manchin gained national attention when he released a campaign ad in which he fired a bullet through a copy of the previously mentioned “Cap and Trade Initiative” being pushed by the Obama administration. This ad illustrates the thin line that Democrats in the state have to walk in order to represent their constituents while also identifying with a party that is pushing for legislation that those constituents oppose. Manchin has mastered this ability and remains a fairly popular senator but other Democrats in the region haven’t been so lucky.
The primary Republican strategy during the 2014 Midterms was to run against the policies of the Obama administration. The race in West Virginia was no exception and Capito was surely aided by the President’s dismal approval rating in the state. President Obama, who made it clear that his policies belonged on the recent midterm ballot, is also very closely associated with this latest EPA push to limit coal emissions. That connection seems to have had major repercussions in the minds of voters in coal country who ousted the Democrat governor of liberal stronghold Illinois and foiled the attempt of Allison Lundergan Grimes to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. McConnell was far more aggressive in defending the coal industry than Grimes who was hurt by a leaked video that showed staffers at her campaign headquarters admitting she was not serious about her support of coal production. McConnell’s perceived dedication compared to the perception that Grimes was just going through the motions delivered the incumbent senator an overwhelming victory in heavy coal mining counties. Voters were just as kind to Capito who ran a pro-coal campaign and is already outlining her plan to curb EPA regulations when she gets to Washington in January.
The next two years will not only be very critical to Obama’s legacy but they will also have very real consequences for the people who’s paychecks depend on the success of the coal industry. The voters in coal producing states have made it clear they think Republicans are the party that will best represent their needs but that trust is dependent on the party taking a stand against the EPA when the new Congress is sworn in this January. Republicans are already gearing up for that battle with the EPA and have been vocal about increasing domestic energy output through projects like the Keystone Pipeline. Some Democrats believe that Republicans have tied this “War on Coal” too closely to Obama and the strategy will not work after he leaves office but they will have a difficult time separating those two components over the next two years. The GOP, led by voices like Capito’s, has an opportunity to secure a very important voting bloc for years to come if they can successfully protect the jobs that have become a way of life for generations of Americans in coal country.
– Andrew Mark Miller