Obama's 'war on coal' likely to give GOP edge in West Virginia

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — “Last week, I was talking about some coal deals,” businessman and Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Raese told a packed crowd at the local Holiday Inn Saturday night, “and I said let’s close the deals before the hammer-and-sickle come down.”

The 200-plus guests at the Berkley County Republican dinner here cheered.  They knew exactly what Raese was talking about: the Obama administration’s assault on the coal industry that is the economic backbone of West Virginia.  Almost to a person, Republicans we spoke to here agree that a series of regulations and rulings from the Environmental Protection Agency that are hostile to the coal and natural gas industry will most likely turn the historically Democratic Mountaineer State into a land of opportunity for the GOP in 2012.

With United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts likening EPA head Lisa Jackson’s treatment of the coal industry to the Navy Seals taking out Osama bin Laden and hinting the UMW may not endorse President Obama for re-election, it is considered certain that West Virginia’s five electoral votes will be in the Republican column this fall.  In addition, Raese—who lost a close special election to Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin in 2010 for the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)—is considered even money against Manchin in the race for the full term this fall.  Manchin, obviously aware of the desperate political situation he is in, has broken with Obama over the coal issue.

Republican Bill Maloney, narrowly edged out by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in the special election to succeed Manchin as governor last year, is in much stronger political shape for their coming rematch in November.

Even in contests where they traditionally have not even placed, West Virginia Republicans find themselves in fighting trim as a result of animosity toward the Obama administration.   John Overington, who has served in the state House of Delegates for 28 years, told us he expects the ranks of his fellow Republicans in the House to grow significantly from its current 35 (out of 100) and that recruitment of fresh candidates is “outstanding.”

“And, in large part, what’s spurring all of this,” explained Overington, “is what we refer to as ‘Obama’s war on coal.’”

In a state whose population is about 1.8 million, there are about 40,000 residents working in coal-related jobs.  But because the industry is so critical to the state economy—and because so many EPA actions have a harsh impact on their energy industry in general—West Virginians in general feel the effects of the “war on coal.”

“You saw an excellent case in point of the war on coal when the EPA revoked the Spruce No. 1 coal mine expansion,” Patrick Morrisey, the likely Republican nominee for attorney general, told us. “The EPA’s zealous and arbitrary action cost the state countless jobs.  Fortunately, the U.S. District Court recently ruled that the EPA had over-reached its authority and overturned the Agency’s order.  Folks breathed a sigh of relief, but people realize that Obama won’t stop until he puts the coal industry out of business.”  (Morrisey, who also worked on the 26 state effort to overturn Obamacare, has an excellent chance of unseating 20-year Democratic incumbent Daryl McGraw as attorney general.)

Another example of the EPA’s hostile approach to West Virginia was offered by Republican State Delegate Gary Howell.  Noting that his state has offices in Germany and Japan to promote overseas exports of its goods, Howell said that “The EPA is dragging their feet on issuing permits. They are keeping many in a state of perpetual review not denying, but not issuing either. And this is just not confined to overseas orders, either.”

There has been some attempt at retaliation toward the EPA from the state.  Earlier this year, Howell introduced the Intra-State Coal and Use Act, which designates the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as the “final-say” agency on permits for coal companies that produce coal for in-state use. Howell told Human Events that “EPA actions against our coal industry, which operates solely in the state, are in violation of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which clearly sets out the rights of states.”

Whether the Democratic-ruled legislature acts on Howell’s measure is uncertain.  What seems certain is that West Virginia voters will respond to the Obama administration and its “war on coal” at the polls by voting Republican in a very big way come November.