Democrats' new coal headache

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule on carbon pollution is the latest headache for Democrats trying to defend a fragile Senate majority. 

With many vulnerable Democrats coming from energy-producing states, Republicans argued the Obama administration’s call for power plants to cut their carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030 would cost local jobs and increase energy prices. 

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Democratic candidates in coal-rich West Virginia and Kentucky were among the first to try to distance themselves from the president after the changes were unveiled Monday. 

In West Virginia, Senate nominee Natalie Tennant promised she would “stand up to President Obama, [EPA Administrator] Gina McCarthy, and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs.” 

Democrats’ path to keeping their six-seat Senate majority depends on protecting seats in red states like West Virginia, where the coal industry is one of the state’s primary job providers. There, Tennant is already at a disadvantage in the open seat contest against GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, largely because of Obama’s dismal approval numbers. 

In the much more competitive Kentucky Senate Race, Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes also slammed the rule. 

"President Obama's new EPA rule is more proof that Washington isn't working for Kentucky,” Grimes said. “When I'm in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the President's attack on Kentucky's coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my number one priority."

But her target, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is already taking action, pledging last week to introduce legislation to block the rule. His campaign has made what it characterizes as Obama’s “war on coal” a centerpiece of its attacks on Grimes, and the rule gives them yet another opening.

“Alison Lundergan Grimes was recruited by President Obama, who said he would ‘bankrupt’ the coal industry, and Harry Reid, who said ‘coal makes us sick’ and she is being funded by liberals nationwide who know that a vote for her is a vote to ensure further implementation of their anti-coal agenda in the U.S. Senate,” said Allison Moore, McConnell’s spokeswoman.

While challengers were quick to react, some red-state Democrats facing tough reelection fights were more cautious.

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Mary Landrieu (D), under fire in oil-rich Louisiana, didn’t put out a statement until the afternoon, but she used the opportunity to assert that carbon emissions regulations should be made by Congress.

“While it is important to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, this should not be achieved by EPA regulations. Congress should set the terms, goals and timeframe," she said. "I will work with leaders of both parties to build on the progress we have already made."

Her main GOP rival, Rep. Bill Cassidy, in an earlier statement charged that the new rule was another example of Landrieu’s ineffectiveness, despite her Senate seniority.

"It's easy for Senator Landrieu to claim she supports Louisiana's energy economy in press releases but the facts say different,” said John Cummins, Cassidy’s campaign spokesman, in a release. “Under Senator Landrieu's watch, EPA regulations have proliferated, the Keystone pipeline has died and drilling on federal lands has actually decreased.”

Still, Landrieu has been an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration’s regulations on oil and gas drilling, and last week toured with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz around her state to appraise Louisiana’s energy industry.

Even in states where the new rule is likely to have a more muted impact, Republicans used it to hit Democrats on job creation.

Michigan Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land knocked the rule as an “enormous regulatory attack on coal,” and called on Rep. Gary Peters, the Democratic nominee for Senate, to oppose it.

Other vulnerable Democrats have exhibited more comfort with the proposal and with pro-environmental policies in general. Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) supported it, because the Colorado legislature enacted similar standards on the state’s power plants years ago. Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.) has actually attacked her GOP opponent Thom Tillis for rolling back protections for the environment while state House speaker.

While the rule puts many incumbent Democrats in a difficult spot, it also gives them an opportunity to show independence from their party and the White House. 

Vulnerable Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) has been doing just that. He’s been speaking out against the rule for weeks, and on Monday announced plans to introduce legislation to block its implementation.

“There is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and the Obama Administration has got it wrong once again,” Rahall said in a statement. “This new regulation threatens our economy and does so with an apparent disregard for the livelihoods of our coal miners and thousands of families throughout West Virginia.”

Democrats have long been under fire from Republicans for the Obama administration’s energy policies. The GOP has lately knocked Democrats for support from California billionaire Tom Steyer, who’s spending up to $50 million of his own money and $50 million more through his NextGen Climate Action PAC backing Democratic candidates who support green energy policies. 

He’s indicated he won’t spend either for or against pro-coal and oil vulnerable Democrats, but he’s contributed millions to groups backing them, such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That’s prompted further GOP attacks, but it’s also helped the party’s bottom line. 

And despite the potential damage the move could do to Democratic prospects in red and purple states, it’s likely to offer somewhat of a boost as it enlivens environmentalists.

The League of Conservation Voters lauded the move as “the biggest step we’ve ever taken for the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced.”

“The American people support these commonsense safeguards and are sick of the lie that pollution has to be the fuel of our economic engine. The desperate and dirty opponents of these safeguards are using a failed, outdated playbook to protect their profits,” said LCV President Gene Karpinski in a statement.

—This piece was updated at 3 p.m. to reflect comment from Landrieu.