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POLITICS: PennAve

2014 candidates target EPA in energy-dependent states

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In a handful of states, one part of the campaign formula for 2014 Senate candidates is the same for Republicans and Democrats — take a hard line against the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republicans are renewing their attacks from last campaign season, saying the Obama administration is waging a "war on coal" and fossil fuels in general in energy-producing states where that message is tied to jobs and the economic health of many communities.

Many conservative lawmakers up for re-election in 2014 slammed proposed EPA emissions rules for new and existing coal-fired power plants last month at a coal industry-sponsored rally in Washington.

"This fight has just begun. We are not giving up. We are going to push back against these people in every single way we can. We are going to stop this war on coal," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at the rally. McConnell is facing a tough fight from Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state.

The EPA and the Obama administration's climate policies will be in focus for Democrats, whose candidates in some races are already attempting to distance themselves from the White House on energy issues.

"I am deeply disappointed in today's EPA ruling," Grimes said when the agency floated the regulations on Sept. 20. "Yet again President Obama's administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky jobs."

But whether the war on coal strategy will work for Republicans remains questionable. The tactic fell flat during Mitt Romney's failed 2012 presidential bid, as Obama swept key coal-heavy states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia despite Romney's active campaigning on the issue.

Green groups point to Democratic Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe's victory Tuesday as proof the war on coal message isn't a winner, as conservative GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli slammed Obama's EPA in an attempt to lock up support from the state's southwest coal-mining region.

Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general, did win that region, but his percentage of the vote there slipped compared with outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's share in 2009. And Cuccinelli lost Montgomery County — home to the historic Merrimac mining community — to McAuliffe, despite McDonnell taking it by 10 percentage points four years ago.

Assessing the impact of the war on coal message in that region is complicated because of all the other issues that plagued Cuccinelli's campaign, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University. That includes allegations that Cuccinelli's office improperly advised a pair of natural gas firms.

But as Democrats have gradually embraced the nexus of energy and climate change in the political sphere, Republicans continue to deny or remain skeptical of the effect burning fuel has on a warming planet. Green groups have played on that, calling conservatives out of touch.

"Increasingly we're seeing across the country that these same old attacks that would have been successful years ago are falling flat," said Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman with the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group that backed McAuliffe.

For many of the red-leaning states in play in 2014, however, there's nary a mention of climate change from either Republicans or Democrats.

To be sure, many of those states have long expressed an anti-regulatory zeal. They include Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. All except one of those states — Kentucky — are home to an incumbent Democrat.

While such states have a trend of producing the more centrist variety of Democrat, a raft of new EPA regulations ranging from power plant emissions to automobiles could endanger their electoral hopes.

The power plant regulations have proven a convenient scapegoat for the ills that plague coal country, though that sickness started years ago and has been exacerbated by newfound domestic supplies of cheap natural gas.

Kentucky's 6th congressional district election in 2012 is instructive in how candidates need to play the state, said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

That pitted incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler against a relatively unknown Republican challenger, Andy Barr, in a district that had been redrawn to favor Chandler.

But Barr won the race.

"The issue Barr used was this argument about Obama harming Kentucky with anti-coal policies," Voss said. "The coal issue flipped some voters into the Republican column who otherwise might not have gone there."

West Virginia also has flipped in recent years. A state with a strong union history that has sent many Democrats to Washington, it's now likely to turn red partly because of the perceived threat from Obama's EPA and broader Democratic goals of combating climate change through curbing carbon emissions.

Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is leading in the race so far for the state's open Senate seat. She served as a sort of emcee for the Washington coal rally in October and has blasted the new power plant rules, saying the action from EPA "strikes at the core of West Virginia."

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has taken aim at the EPA as well, co-sponsoring several bills to restrain its reach — particularly with how it administers a biofuel blending mandate known as the Renewable Fuel Standard.

That's a winning strategy in Arkansas, said Janine Parry, a professor and the Arkansas poll director at the University of Arkansas.

"[O]ur antipathy in recent election cycles is focused like a laser beam on President Obama," she said in an email.

And in Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich has had to fend off attacks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee on EPA issues. Conservative group American Energy Alliance, which also hit Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., also has gone after Begich.

Begich, who is a strong supporter of expanded oil and gas production, hasn't given a full-throated endorsement of the EPA emissions rules. Instead, he has worked with power providers in Alaska to ensure the regulations wouldn't hurt their generating units.

"People know where I am on energy issues in Alaska," Begich said. "I find it somewhat humorous when people come to Alaska from outside and they want to run these ads and say I'm against energy. I mean, are you kidding me?"

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