West Virginia Senate test: Which candidate can cozy up closest to coal?

Coal is the gold standard in West Virginia, where Senate candidate Natalie Tennant bashes her GOP rival for appearing on the campaign trail with out-of-stater Mitt Romney, who once said coal 'kills people.'

Chris Tilley/AP
Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito speaks during the Working for Jobs Rally in Beckley, W.Va., Tuesday, Aug. 19. Looking on are Sen. Evan Jenkins and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Coal is king in West Virginia. What's less clear is who the state's next US senator will be.

Locked in a tight race for the state’s open Senate seat, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) are each jockeying to be more pro-coal than the other. Recent polling shows Capito maintains about a 10-point edge with November’s midterm elections drawing closer.

The latest coal-related jab comes from Ms. Tennant, who is slamming Representative Capito for campaigning Tuesday alongside 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Tennant’s campaign has labeled Mr. Romney “coal’s public enemy #1,” in reference to a 2003 appearance in which Romney – then governor of Massachusetts – pointed at a coal plant and said: “That plant kills people.”

Looking at the West Virginia Senate race, observers may feel like they’ve entered a Twilight Zone in which Democrats can boast of having positions as pro-coal as Republicans, and where a former GOP presidential hopeful is called “coal’s public enemy #1.”

“If you look at the dynamics of the West Virginia races, it’s like: ‘Who’s the Democrat here?’” says Christopher Plein, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University.

Mr. Plein credits West Virginia’s distinct history and legacy of coal development for creating an atmosphere in which both sides vehemently criticize one another on coal. Coal is less vital to West Virginia’s economy than it once was, Plein says, but grandstanding about the state’s storied natural resource helps candidates confirm their ties to West Virginia and distance themselves from the Washington establishment.

“Coal sort of serves as shorthand. If you say that you’re pro-coal, you establish your bona fides,” Plein says. “You establish that you’re pro-West Virginia.”

And both campaigns are trying to do just that.

“The fact that Congresswoman Capito would align herself with someone who believes coal ‘kills people’ just to make a quick buck shows how quickly she will turn her back on West Virginia coal miners to get Wall Street dollars,” Tennant spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said in a statement last week, accusing Capito of inviting Romney for fundraising purposes.

Capito’s campaign fired back at Tennant, tying her to President Obama and his proposed regulations on coal-fired power plants.

“It is an honor to receive Governor Romney’s endorsement,” Capito said at Tuesday’s rally with Romney in Beckley, W.Va. “I am pro-coal, pro-jobs, pro-West Virginia and I am ready to take our fight directly to President Obama, Harry Reid and anyone else who wants to cast our state aside.”

Romney shifted away from rhetoric critical of coal after wrapping up his time as governor in Massachusetts. “West Virginians have a clear choice in this election,” Romney said in support of Capito prior to his appearance Tuesday. “[A]llow President Obama to continue killing coal jobs, or fight back by electing pro-coal advocates.” 

Romney is also campaigning alongside Evan Jenkins in West Virginia, the candidate who hopes to unseat US Rep. Nick Rahall (D) in a competitive race.

“The [West Virginia] Republican party is starting to gain traction and mature,” Plein says, in a state where the Democratic party used to dominate the political scene. But today, state Democrats increasingly must distance themselves from the national party.

With midterm campaigns in full swing, Romney has become a popular campaigner nationwide, making stops in support of Senate candidates Scott Brown in New Hampshire and Joni Ernst in Iowa. Romney is also popular with the Utah Republican Party. As the Monitor reported last week, the Utah state party chair has launched DraftMitt.org in spite of opposition from Romney insiders.

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