Tenacious Tennant faces tough fight

Lauren Schneiderman

West Virginia’s secretary of State says she’ll stand up to Obama on coal, but that’s easier said than done.

As Natalie Tennant tries to keep the West Virginia Senate seat in Democratic hands, the underdog candidate is arguing she’d be a critical dissenting voice against the president on energy and coal issues.

But that’s a tough task for the Democratic secretary of State. Without a record fighting against President Obama, she has little to show as evidence she’d be successful standing up to him, let alone in beating the odds set by the darkening red tint of the state, as she runs against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) for retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.Va.) seat this fall.

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It’s a familiar difficulty that other red-state Democrats are facing in this year’s elections — Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska have all worked to differentiate themselves from the president. They’ve been touting specific instances in their record to show where they were able to break with their party and the president on issues.

But for Tennant, it’s an especially daunting political reality. Any Democratic challenger would have trouble explaining how, if elected, they’d hope to stand up to the president as a junior senator in a chamber where younger members typically go along to get along and seniority equals clout.

During an interview with The Hill on Wednesday morning, she avoided a question about the potential drag Obama, who received 36 percent of the vote in the state in 2012, might have on her chances in November, declaring instead that the race should be focused on her policies, rather than the president.

“It’s not about politics. These are true policy differences that I have with the president, and that’s what I will show,” she said. “Whether it’s energy and coal, as I’ve talked about, or whether it’s TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would certainly hurt businesses and workers in West Virginia.”

History might be on Tennant’s side, but Obama’s numbers are not. West Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican senator since the 1950s, but Democrats have been losing ground in the state in recent years. The state supported GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2012, and Obama had a 67 percent disapproval rating there in the most recent Gallup survey, his worst rating in any of the red states with Democratic senators facing reelection.

Facing those odds, many Democrats in the state are privately concerned about her ability to pull off such a feat.

“Tennant’s challenge is, she has no choice. This is not a debate. She’s gotta distance herself from the president, and it’s not simply a matter of distancing yourself rhetorically. You’ve got to make it very clear to West Virginia voters where your positions differ and how you will stand up against the party and the president,” said one West Virginia Democratic strategist who has been involved in difficult races in the state before.

During her interview, Tennant emphasized the need for a renewed commitment to coal, which makes up a large portion of West Virginia’s economy, in the nation’s energy policies.

But Obama has made it clear he plans to take whatever unilateral action he can to further his agenda on energy and climate, indicating his administration would not back down on its proposed regulations for coal-fired power plants, which require plants to install carbon capture technology to curb emissions.

Asked whether she felt Obama was taking the wrong tack in using his executive power to push further regulations, Tennant demurred.

“I think that he’s wrong in not including coal in an all of the above solution to our energy challenges,” she said.

The West Virginia strategist suggested she needs to start establishing her vision for the state now if she hopes to win in November.

“She’s got four to six months, at best, where she can kind of distinguish herself and where people will see that it’s not about her being a Democrat but seeing her as a unique candidate who’s going to lead the state in the direction they want it to go,” the strategist said. “If the voters in West Virginia think all you’re doing is going to Washington to be a vote of acclimation, you’re done.”

But it’s unclear what policies Tennant herself would propose to recommit to coal. She suggested that there needs to be a “renewed partnership with the research we can do with the coal industry, or a renewed partnership in exporting our coal,” as well as an emphasis on the health and safety of mine workers going forward.

Asked what issues she’d be willing to work with the president on, she said: “Jobs, economy, technology.”

Tennant also touted her work on the recent chemical spill in the state that left more than 300,000 in the Charleston area without access to safe water. She testified in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, and said she’d support a bill proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to tackle the chemical spill.

One of the ways she’s working to distance herself from both Obama and Capito is to characterize herself as the candidate most committed to West Virginia.

Tennant emphasized her Mountain State roots during her Tuesday interview, highlighting her role as the first female mascot for West Virginia University. She said she believes voters understand she’ll “put West Virginia first,” but also said that was a time when she was an underdog. 

“I’ve lost races before too. That’s what people know about me; that’s what people appreciate, that I am a fighter; I am someone who stands up for them,” she said.

Voters do in fact know the candidate, partly from her time as a TV broadcaster in the state. But they also know Capito, who comes from a long lineage of West Virginia politicians as daughter of three-term Gov. Arch Moore (R).

Some political observers have been skeptical of Tennant’s candidacy, noting her poor showing in her 2011 gubernatorial fight and her first bid for secretary of State.

But Tennant insisted she learned from her gubernatorial bid, which happened, she said, during a difficult time in her life, when her mother was sick.

“What I’ve taken from the governor’s race in 2011, that was a tough time for me. My mother was sick during that period. Utilizing all of your resources, I learned that,” she said.

Republicans have made it clear they’re running a race not just against Tennant, but against Obama as well.

“President Obama’s approval rating is in the mid-20s in West Virginia, yet Natalie Tennant enthusiastically supported him twice and has embraced his anti-coal agenda, higher taxes and of course ObamaCare. Natalie Tennant is going to lose because voters in West Virginia have very different positions and beliefs than she and Barack Obama share,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said .