Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

West Virginia Senate Test: Which Candidate Can Cozy Up Closest to Coal?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

West Virginia Senate Test: Which Candidate Can Cozy Up Closest to Coal?

Article excerpt

Coal is king in West Virginia. What's less clear is who the state's next US senator will be.

Locked in a tight race for the state's open Senate seat, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) are each jockeying to be more pro-coal than the other. Recent polling shows Capito maintains about a 10-point edge with November's midterm elections drawing closer.

The latest coal-related jab comes from Ms. Tennant, who is slamming Representative Capito for campaigning Tuesday alongside 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Tennant's campaign has labeled Mr. Romney "coal's public enemy #1," in reference to a 2003 appearance in which Romney - then governor of Massachusetts - pointed at a coal plant and said: "That plant kills people."

Looking at the West Virginia Senate race, observers may feel like they've entered a Twilight Zone in which Democrats can boast of having positions as pro-coal as Republicans, and where a former GOP presidential hopeful is called "coal's public enemy #1."

"If you look at the dynamics of the West Virginia races, it's like: 'Who's the Democrat here?'" says Christopher Plein, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University.

Mr. Plein credits West Virginia's distinct history and legacy of coal development for creating an atmosphere in which both sides vehemently criticize one another on coal. Coal is less vital to West Virginia's economy than it once was, Plein says, but grandstanding about the state's storied natural resource helps candidates confirm their ties to West Virginia and distance themselves from the Washington establishment.

"Coal sort of serves as shorthand. If you say that you're pro- coal, you establish your bona fides," Plein says. "You establish that you're pro-West Virginia."

And both campaigns are trying to do just that.

"The fact that Congresswoman Capito would align herself with someone who believes coal 'kills people' just to make a quick buck shows how quickly she will turn her back on West Virginia coal miners to get Wall Street dollars," Tennant spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said in a statement last week, accusing Capito of inviting Romney for fundraising purposes. …

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