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Carbon Plan Puts Democrats in Coal States on the Defensive
Carbon Plan Puts Democrats in Coal States on the Defensive

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Obama administration’s proposal for sharp cuts to emissions from power plants complicates the midterm elections this fall for Democrats, especially since some of the battleground states for control of the Senate are tied to the coal economy.

Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is challenging Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, here in the most high-profile Senate race this year, has already been portraying herself as a friend of coal and a sharp critic of Mr. Obama.

On Monday, Ms. Grimes pledged to “fiercely oppose the president’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry” if elected.

Natalie E. Tennant, a Democrat running for an open seat in West Virginia, struck a similar tone.

“I will stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy, and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs,” she said Monday, referring to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is proposing the emissions regulation.

The regulation takes aim at the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. Experts say it could close hundreds of the plants.

Alison Lundergan Grimes spoke in Covington, Ky., in May.  CreditWin Mcnamee/Getty Images

Republicans quickly seized on the fact that coal provides the majority of electricity in half a dozen states with hard-fought Senate races, including Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia.

“The stakes are clear,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said last week, adding that a vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate in Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia “is a vote in support of President Obama’s war on coal.”

But the issue is likely to play differently state by state, and in some cases the president’s aggressive action against greenhouse gas emissions may benefit Democrats who tap into voter sentiment for addressing climate change.

Natalie E. Tennant attended a public works meeting in Charleston, W.V., in December.CreditTy William Wright for The New York Times

The “war on coal” cry was a losing issue for Republicans in the race last year for governor of Virginia, which has significant coal mining, and which elected a Democrat.

“People on the Republican side overestimate the feelings for this and on our side, Democrats are scared for no reason,” said Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster. “Some Democrats assume anything about global warming is a political loser. And that’s just not the case.”

He identified races in Colorado and Iowa, with growing renewable energy sectors, where confronting global warming can help the Democratic candidate in hard-fought Senate contests “if they play it correctly.”

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New Goal for Emissions

The Obama administration announced on Monday a proposal to significantly cut carbon pollution from power plants. FULL GRAPHIC »



Million metric tons

New proposed level

Would cut emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030








Targets pledged by President Obama in 2009 U.N. accord.










In battlegrounds such as Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, where the president is deeply unpopular, the challenge is greater.

Representative Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress this year, took to the House floor last week to pre-emptively denounce the Environmental Protection Agency, which drafted the proposed carbon regulations. “The only real question is where on a scale from devastating to a death blow the new rule will fall,” he said.

As the president’s health care measure, the Affordable Care Act, loses some of its potency as a Republican issue, with voters increasingly saying they would rather fix the law than replace it, climate regulations could gain ground as an issue. An outside group supporting Mr. McConnell, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, has spent $800,000 on TV ads that attempt to elevate coal to the importance of health care in attacks on Ms. Grimes, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising. “Obamacare; the war on coal: that’s Obama’s agenda,” one ad says.

Representative Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia in November. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

As a lesson in the potency of the coal issue in Kentucky, Republicans point to what happened in the state’s Sixth Congressional District two years ago.

Andy Barr, a Republican, defeated a popular four-term Democrat, Ben Chandler, with a focused attack portraying Mr. Chandler as anti-coal because of his vote in Mr. Obama’s first term in support of a national cap-and-trade bill (it was defeated in the Senate). Mr. Chandler was called a “low life” in ads featuring a man in coal miner’s gear.

The message resonated even though there is not a single coal mining job in the Sixth District, which includes Lexington, and even as coal mining employment is at a historic low for reasons unrelated to environmental regulation: competition from cheaper natural gas and the mechanization of mining.

Mr. Barr argued that Kentucky manufacturers, who create jobs, depend on coal for low electricity rates. He also tapped into the cultural affinity many Kentuckians feel for the coal industry, part of the state’s heritage.

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Carbon Plan Puts Democrats in Coal States on the Defensive