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Coal provides Republicans needed ammunition in battleground state of Ohio

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Coal provides Republicans needed ammunition in battleground state of Ohio

Longviewed as a vital swing state in national elections, Ohio is preparing for afierce contest this November with coal playing a pivotal role in both thesenate and presidential races.

Hometo struggling Northern Appalachian coal mines and host to this year'sRepublican National Convention, Ohio was sure to focus on the ailing industrythis election season. However, recent comments from the Democratic front-runnerhave energized the state's GOP and sector advocates ahead of the Novembercontests.

Inearly March, while speaking at a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, HillaryClinton said the words, "because we're going to put a lot of coal minersand coal companies out of business …" While the former senator andsecretary of state was talking about dedicating funding to the coal communitiesmost impacted by the industry downturn, the comment was upon by the and local political leaders.

Clintonintroduced a $30 billion coal assistancepackage in late 2015 aimed at providing assistance to those communitiesimpacted by the industry downturn. However, for many, Clinton's commentsoffered the strongest argument against what they saw as a continuation of theObama administration policies so often cited as detrimental to the coal sector.

SNL Image

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton

Source: Thinkstock

"Thosecomments only elevated the coal issue," said Christian Palich, presidentof the Ohio Coal Association. "And as those comments continue to getplayed, you're going to see that on other campaigns, on social media andmailers in different races."

"We'reseeing it in races where coal – and really energy – is playing a central role…Hillary Clinton really brought a lot of attention to the issue and I think she'sgoing to pay for that in six months," Palich added. "If we get newleadership, the industry will be able to take a big, big sigh of relief the dayafter the election."

Forthe Ohio Coal Association and local party leaders, Clinton's comments andrecord serve as a direct link between the federal policies that have proven tobe deeply unpopular in coal producing parts of the state.

"Frustrationin liberal policies from the Obama administration that are threatening the coalindustry is evident as seen in his polling in coal country — the association ofDemocratic candidates who support President Obama and his policies will bedevastating this fall," said Brittany Warner, communications director forthe Ohio Republican Party.

Likemost coal-producing states, Ohio has witnessed a sharp decline in coalproduction and employment over the past few years, with communities in theeastern part of the state feeling the brunt of the downturn. According to datacompiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence, Ohio has seen coal productionfall from about 26 million tons in 2008 to about 17 million tons in 2015. Andwith that decline, the state has seen sector employment continue to fall aswell.

Whileimportant, Warner suggested that Clinton's most recent comments were only acontinuation of the candidate's broader record on coal in the state.

"Eightyears ago Hillary Clinton ran as a defender of coal and now she's talking aboutit in the past tense and frankly her comments and her remarks over the last sixmonths are things that are going to continue to be damaging to Democraticcandidates — not just her, but down ticket candidates that support her as well,"Warner said.

"Ithink those remarks are going to haunt her this fall, especially because shesaid them in Ohio just days before the state primary," she later added. "They'renot going away."

Ifsuccessful, this focus on Clinton's comments could be damaging for thepresidential frontrunner and potentially help swing a pivotal congressionalrace in a year that Democrats expect to win back the majority in the U.S.Senate. However, the party's candidate — former Gov. Ted Strickland — enteredthe race with coal community challenges of his own.

Beforeannouncing his run for U.S. Senate to challenge incumbent Republican RobPortman, Strickland held a position at the Center for American Progress. Whileat the progressive think tank, Strickland co-authored a report advocating forchanges to the federal coal lease program. While the issue has been taken on bya number ofCongressional andenvironmental advocates,it has drawn scornfrom the coal industry and provided a line of attack from the industry as wellas his opponent.

Theformer governor's recent work on the issue has opened the door for furthercriticism from his opponents, who have already begun attacking him for hisparty affiliation with Clinton.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland

Source: Strickland for Senate

"IsTed Strickland going to stay silent as Hillary Clinton declares war on Ohio'scoal workers?" Portman asked in a March statement. "Instead of turninghis back on Ohio workers again, Ted should denounce Hillary Clinton'sreprehensible attacks and start working on behalf of hard-working families whoare trying to make ends meet."

Despitethis line of attack, Strickland has made some progress in recent weeks, risingin the polls against Portman. According to Kyle Kondik, managing editor ofSabato's Crystal Ball, a political analysis website at the University ofVirginia's Center for Politics, the Senate race was moved from leaningRepublican to a toss-up on April 7, with the publication citing the candidate'sconnection to Clinton as one reason for his stronger position.

A question of lasting impact

HerbAsher, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University's Department of PoliticalScience, agreed that coal will likely play a significant role in the upcomingelections, but cautioned that the focus of industry and political advocates didnot address the larger issuesfacing Ohio coal.

"Itwill be used — how much of an impact it will have is not at all clear,"Asher said. "It's certainly something that will be used and could have animpact on the margin, but the reality of it is that more and more people aregoing to be talking about what's going on with the industry and not just inrespect to climate change or water, but the industry itself."

Still,the OSU professor allowed that the state's coal industry could and likely willplay a political role in the run-up to November.

"It'sbased on a false premise that you can somehow turn back the clock, but it'sreal in people's perceptions so really, the validity makes less sense thanpeople's perception about what's happening to them," Asher said.

Asheradded that Clinton's focus on economic assistance and redevelopment in Ohiocoal communities is a tough sell due to broader pessimism about the state'seconomy.

"Thereare people who are trying to talk about that, but you've got certain parts ofthe state where there is not a lot of economic activity going on so it's hardto say to people that there will be something to replace this when you don'tknow what that replacement is," Asher said.

TheOhio Democratic Party declined to participate in this story, and the Stricklandand Clinton campaigns could not be reached for comment.