The War on Coal Puts Democrats on Defense

Every Democrat running for senate will have the weight of their party's anti-energy agenda around their necks.

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While much of the press attention in the political world this week is focused on the potential for a government shutdown over Obamacare, there's another big story with serious 2014 election implications that's flying under the radar in Washington.

As Reuters reports, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy is set to unveil new rules tomorrow that will dramatically limit emissions by U.S. power plants. While McCarthy claims the administration's new rules "provide certainty" to the coal industry, the only "certainty" of their renewed war on coal is that thousands of jobs will be lost and Democrats running for the House and Senate in key states across the country will be further put on the defensive.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky where Democrat Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is desperately trying, with little success, to distance herself from President Obama and her anti-coal Senate leader, Harry Reid. As Kentucky's WFPL reported earlier this year, coal production in Kentucky is already at the lowest levels in the past half century even before these new regulations. Grimes' effort to speak out this week actually achieved the exact opposite goal – Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett quickly and publicy credited her opponent, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, for being the industry's chief supporter on Capitol Hill.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

And it's not just President Obama who is preventing Democratic candidates like Grimes from gaining traction on the campaign trail. On the Senate floor just this morning, McConnell lambasted the proposed new rules, noting that the EPA's actions ignore the thousands of people in Kentucky who depend on the coal industry for their livelihoods. McConnell then attempted to introduce and pass the "Saving Coal Jobs Act," which would block the EPA rules while streamlining the permitting process for proposed new mines. His efforts were immediately blocked by Reid, who once famously declared "coal makes us sick."  

Ironically, Reid is set to attend a fundraiser with Lundergan Grimes in Washington today, just hours after blocking McConnell's bill, which prompted one Kentucky radio show host, a Democrat, to say "bad timing." And next month, Reid is set to host another high-dollar fundraiser for Lundergan Grimes in Las Vegas, further demonstrating to every voter in Kentucky exactly who she will side with if elected to the Senate.  

And speaking of bad timing, West Virginia Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant announced her candidacy for Senate Tuesday in one of the biggest pro-coal states in the country and a key battleground for control of the Senate. Like Grimes, Tennant tried to distance herself from the president, but as Politico astutely observed, Tennant was actually an Obama delegate at last year's Democratic National Convention. In contrast, Tennant's opponent, Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito has been outspoken in her support for the West Virginia coal industry and against the new EPA regulations.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

In Louisiana – another major Senate battleground state – incumbent Democrat Senator Mary Landrieu is similarly struggling to separate herself from the president's anti-energy policies. No small task considering she voted to confirm Gina McCarthy in the Senate earlier this year, while Republican Senator David Vitter opposed her nomination. And just like Moore Capito, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is challenging Landrieu, has also been a leading critic of the EPA.  Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Cassidy that would similarly block the EPA from imposing expensive energy-related regulations. It is now being blocked by Senate Democrats.

Even worse for Democrats in 2014, this represents just the tip of the iceberg. Today also marks the five-year anniversary of TransCanada's application to construct the Keystone XL pipeline. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's top energy official, Karen Harbert, testified at a House hearing on Keystone this morning:

It took America five years to build the Hoover Dam, one year to build the Empire State Building and four years to build the New Jersey Turnpike.  Yet after five years, the Obama Administration has not even finished its review of the Keystone XL pipeline.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Expect to hear similar statements from Republican candidates around the country, like former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, who is also running for Senate in that important battleground state. Rounds tweeted this morning:

Five years of inaction for Keystone XL pipeline is far too long. Build it now for America's energy independence!

The reality is that every Democrat running for House or Senate next year, and particularly incumbents like Landrieu, Mark Begich, Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan, will be forced to account for their party's failed record on jobs and war on domestic energy.  

And tomorrow's announcement by the Obama EPA makes a bad political situation even worse for them.

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  • Updated 11/5/13: Brian Walsh remains a paid adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.