As the Senate race in Ohio heats up, Democratic Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is contrasting his record on energy with incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Portman's, fresh off an endorsement late last month by an anti-coal group. But the former 6th District representative was not always a favorite of the League of Conservation Voters during his time in Washington.
Strickland was first elected to represent Ohio's Sixth Congressional District in 1993 but lost in the subsequent election. He won the seat back again in 1996, and served until he won his race for governor in 2006.
The Ohio 6th includes parts of the Appalachian area where coal was a major source for the economy. The largest company in the district is Murray Energy Corporation, a bituminous coal-mining company, and the third-largest is Ohio Valley Coal Company.
Last month, Strickland was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, touting his record as governor as well as his votes as a member of Congress when he was on the Energy and Commerce Committee and cast votes against oil drilling.
However, Strickland's voting record during his tenure in Congress only gradually became more environmentally friendly. During his first year in Congress in 1993, the League of Conservation Voters gave him a 70 percent rating.
He voted against an amendment that would have cut $50 million in funding for coal research and development. It would have spent half of that money on deficit reduction and the other half on energy conservation research and development. Strickland also voted against a mining reform bill.
For several years after his re-election in 1996, his rating from the environmental lobby ranged from 69 to 76.
"I certainly disagree on some of the votes that he made in the House," said Sara Chieffo, vice president of governmental affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. "But we are very confident he is the right leader to be in the Senate." Especially, she said, when in contrast to incumbent Republican Senator Rob Portman.
In 2001, Strickland was named one of the most of improved lawmakers as his score shot up to 86 percent, up 16 points from his 2000 score. His score eventually reached a peak of 90 percent in 2004 before dropping off into the high to mid-70s in the two years before his first run for governor in 2006.
Strickland's campaign highlights his roots in the region: "Ted grew up in Appalachia and has fought tirelessly for coal miners and coal mining communities," said Strickland campaign spokesman David Bergstein in a statement. "That’s a contrast with Sen. Portman, who has voted to restrict black lung benefits, to gut funding for mine safety, and has no idea what life is like for someone who is working the Appalachian coal fields."
But over time, his district has become less friendly to Democrats, who are now viewed as hostile to coal. Obama lost the district in both 2008 and 2012.
When Hillary Clinton said at an Ohio town hall, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners out of business," Portman's campaign called on Strickland to denounce Clinton's remarks and tried to paint Strickland as anti-coal.
Strickland was succeeded in Congress by Democratic Rep. Charles Wilson, who ultimately lost to current Republican Rep. Bill Johnson.
Christian Palich, president of the Ohio coal association, worked on Johnson’s campaign and noted that many who had supported Strickland and Wilson in the past felt they had abandoned coal.
"I'd be out on the trail and hear people say we really like Ted and Charlie but they need to come home because their views have changed," he said.
But Bergstein said it is precisely because of Strickland's background that he wants to promote alternative energy solutions, in hopes of helping put former coal communities back to work.
"Ted also understands how market forces and environmental factors are impacting the energy industry and the region he grew up in — that’s why as governor Ted made Ohio a leader in the clean energy industry," the statement said.
In February 2015, shortly before leaving the Center for American Progress, Strickland co-authored a report focused on revitalizing coal communities in Appalachia.