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Coal Fires Up Two Key Senate Races in 2014

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
McConnell, above, and Capito are likely to try to tie their respective Democratic opponents to party leaders when it comes to the issue of coal in the 2014 Senate races.

There’s no separating coal from the politics of West Virginia and Kentucky, two must-win states in the GOP’s calculus to regain the Senate majority in 2014.

But there’s also little apparent separation on the issue between the Democrats and Republicans likely to face off in the general elections in those states — largely because the Democrats have no legislative record on coal to compare. This has set off a battle of guilt by association, which means voters in these Appalachian states should expect to see plenty of President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in Republican TV ads next year.

Like immigration in the Southwest, coal is more than just a single issue in this region. As two of the top three coal-producing states in the country, where coal powers the vast majority of residents’ electricity, it’s inherently connected to everyday life in West Virginia and Kentucky. Even if it’s not the only issue, it’s always an issue.

“They want to see them fighting for their lives,” veteran Kentucky Democratic operative Jimmy Cauley said of voters. “It’s their jobs and their culture that coal represents.”

The coal industry took a hit last week when the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it will close eight coal units, including two of the three units at the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. Those two will be replaced by a gas-fired plant.

Amid the job losses in his home state, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies have highlighted the Kentucky Republican’s efforts to serve as the leading roadblock to the administration on coal, specifically the proposed regulations on carbon emissions from new power plants. He’s popped up everywhere in recent weeks to hammer the Environmental Protection Agency, and he even brought up coal during a health-care-only campaign news conference on Nov. 12.

Faced with competition from the left and right, McConnell has spoken out about coal on the Senate floor, at an EPA hearing and at a rally on the West Front of the Capitol. He’s also run a 75-second online ad that mentioned a “war on coal” or a “war on Kentucky” eight times.

The coal industry has noticed.

“Everything we’ve asked of him, he’s done,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which does not endorse candidates.

Should McConnell win the GOP primary, he would face a competitive challenger in Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. She has been outspoken in her opposition to the administration’s coal policies and has received support from the industry in her last race for state office.

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