Coal state Demo­crat a cli­mate ca­su­alty? To op­po­nents of Obama, Ra­hall is too close for com­fort

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER

Pres­i­dent Obama’s ag­gres­sive fo­cus on cli­mate change is in­tended to fire up Democrats’ en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist base, but it’s burn­ing some of the party’s most en­dan­gered in­cum­bents.

No­body has felt the burn more than Rep. Nick J. Ra­hall II, West Vir­ginia Demo­crat, who is in one of the tough­est races of his nearly 40-year ca­reer and is strug­gling to dis­tance him­self from Obama en­ergy poli­cies that Repub­li­cans have la­beled a “war on coal.”

Mr. Ra­hall can’t es­cape the is­sue. Mr. Obama made head­lines last week by tout­ing a sci­en­tific re­port that said cat­a­strophic ef­fects of cli­mate change al­ready were oc­cur­ring and by an­nounc­ing a se­ries of ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions to cut car­bon emis­sions.

In West Vir­ginia, the na­tion’s No. 1 coal-pro­duc­ing state, vot­ers fear job losses re­sult­ing from Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­tions, in­clud­ing pend­ing En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions tar­get­ing emis­sions from coal-fired plants.

“What we have is the most anti-coal pres­i­dent in his­tory, and Ra­hall was an early sup­porter of his,” said Con­rad G. Lu­cas II, chair­man of the West Vir­ginia Repub­li­can Party. “Ev­ery time that the pres­i­dent ut­ters any words in­volv­ing ‘cli­mate change’ or ‘global warm­ing’ or any­thing that can hurt West Vir­ginia jobs, it is dis­cussed with great fre­quency in West Vir­ginia.”

The Ra­hall cam­paign did not re­spond to emails and phone mes­sages seek­ing com­ment, but West Vir­ginia Demo­cratic Party spokes­woman Brit­tni McGuire said that “there’s just no greater cham­pion for our coal jobs in Congress” than Mr. Ra­hall.

“West Vir­gini­ans know that Rep. Nick Ra­hall has al­ways stood up to any­one in Wash­ing­ton who threat­ens West Vir­ginia’s coal work­ers and min­ers — al­ways has and al­ways will,” she said.

Mr. Obama’s en­ergy agenda also is un­der­cut­ting Se­nate Democrats whose sur­vival in Novem­ber elec­tions is key to re­tain­ing ma­jor­ity con­trol of the cham­ber.

Vul­ner­a­ble in­cum­bents in­clude Sens. Mary L. Lan­drieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska.

The pivot to cli­mate change, timed to co­in­cide with Se­nate de­bate of an en­ergy ef­fi­ciency bill, was widely viewed as an at­tempt to rally the Demo­cratic base and curry fa­vor with Cal­i­for­nia bil­lion­aire Tom Steyer, who has pledged $100 mil­lion — half of it from his own pocket — to help elect sup­port­ers of an agenda against cli­mate change.

“He doesn’t want to an­tag­o­nize sev­eral mega-donors who are fiercely pro-en­vi­ron­ment, but in the process this could weaken the Democrats in sev­eral key states,” said Gre­gory R. Val­liere, chief po­lit­i­cal strate­gist at Po­tomac Re­search Group, an in­de­pen­dent polling and con­sult­ing firm based in Wash­ing­ton.

The dy­namic is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in West Vir­ginia, where en­ergy pol­icy is a top is­sue and the Ra­hall race is among the most closely watched in the na­tion.

Mr. Ra­hall is the long­est-serv­ing of the vul­ner­a­ble House Democrats, and out­side groups from both sides of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into the race.

West Vir­ginia has un­der­gone a dra­matic shift to the right in re­cent years, al­though reg­is­tered Democrats vastly out­num­ber Repub­li­cans. About half of the vot­ers are Democrats, 30 per­cent reg­is­ter as Repub­li­cans and 20 per­cent de­cline party af­fil­i­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to state elec­tions of­fi­cials.

But the state’s vot­ers lean con­ser­va­tive re­gard­less of party af­fil­i­a­tion.

In the 2012 pres­i­den­tial con­test, West Vir­ginia backed Repub­li­can Mitt Rom­ney over Mr. Obama by a mar­gin of 62 per­cent to 36 per­cent.

Mr. Ra­hall is the only Demo­crat in the state’s three-mem­ber del­e­ga­tion to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. His loss would cre­ate West Vir­ginia’s first all-Repub­li­can del­e­ga­tion in more than 90 years.

Mr. Obama’s health care law also is un­pop­u­lar in West Vir­ginia.

The na­tional Repub­li­can Party, con­ser­va­tive su­per PACs and Mr. Ra­hall’s likely Repub­li­can op­po­nent, state Sen. Evan H. Jenk­ins, have crit­i­cized Mr. Ra­hall for voting for the Af­ford­able Care Act and for back­ing Mr. Obama’s plan to tax car­bon emis­sions through a “cap-and-trade” sys­tem.

Mr. Ra­hall has in­sisted that he never voted for cap-and­trade, though he did vote for Mr. Obama’s 2009 budget that set the stage for it.

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