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W.Va. coal sector lining up behind Republicans to boost 'president's team'

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W.Va. coal sector lining up behind Republicans to boost 'president's team'

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Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, talks to President Donald Trump as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, speaks during a ceremony to sign a bill reversing the Stream Protection Rule on Feb. 16, 2017. Standing in the background from left are Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va.
Source: Associated Press
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President Donald Trump's strong support of coal will likely play well in West Virginia, where the president is very popular and may be able to persuade midterm voters to deliver even more Republicans from the rapidly reddening state in order to continue an agenda supportive of the industry.

While other West Virginia races have attracted national attention, the banner race is for one of the state's U.S. Senate seats. The incumbent, Democrat Joe Manchin, has long enjoyed the support of the coal industry in his various election bids. This year, the West Virginia Coal Association is backing his opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who has been at the forefront of fighting Obama-era policies that restricted mercury and carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"That was a tough choice for us. [Manchin] has done a lot for energy and coal," said Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The stakes are monumental."

In the end, Hamilton said the industry felt it was important to "keep the president's team in place" with majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. The association continues to support state-level Democrats who back the industry.

The nationalization of state politics

Many in the coal sector expressed feeling deeply threatened by the policies of the Obama administration. But with the help of a Republican-led Congress, Trump's administration has peeled back rules reviled by the coal sector, helped arrange at least one export deal abroad and is considering market interventions into the U.S. power sector that would favor coal-fired power plants.

"The national Republican party is doing everything within their power to keep mining as a major economic driver in this country and to see it become more and more viable, where the national Democratic party seems determined to move beyond coal and fossil fuels in general," Hamilton said. "It's as much about the parties that these individuals are part of as it is the individuals themselves."

Long a stronghold of conservative Democrats, West Virginia has begun to favor Republicans for statewide elected offices over the past decade. Gov. Jim Justice, a coal magnate with diversified business interests across the state who was elected as a Democrat, joined Trump onstage at a rally where he publicly announced he was changing his party affiliation to align with Trump. Trump won the votes of over two-thirds of West Virginians in his election bid against Hillary Clinton, a higher percentage than any other state.

Asked about the top issues and candidates for the midterm elections, the largest coal miner in the state, Murray Energy Corp., said simply that it "supports all pro-coal candidates in the upcoming West Virginia midterm elections." Robert Murray, founder and CEO of the company, has been a prominent supporter of Trump.

While West Virginians will be thinking about plenty of issues in the midterm elections — for example, the state's Supreme Court of Appeals was recently upended by impeachment trials, state funding for abortion is a ballot initiative this year and the state recently dealt with a teacher strike — coal will still likely play a prominent role in many voters' decisions.

Coal's prominence supercharged by Trump

Manchin spent decades working his way up the various ranks of state politics before he was elected governor in 2004. A Democrat who went to Washington touting his plans to reach across the aisle, Manchin has continued to win elections despite a shifting state electorate, perhaps in part because of his affinity for and family connections to the coal industry.

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West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey greets coal miners in Charleston, W.Va. Morrisey has received support from President Donald Trump in his race for a U.S. Senate seat.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

"Every candidate for office in West Virginia has to at least pay lip service to coal and has to at least say 'you know, we're going to support the coal industry in some way,'" said Patrick Hickey, assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University. "One thing that is different [this election cycle] is Donald Trump is president and West Virginians as a whole really love Donald Trump."

Trump has latched on to pro-coal rhetoric and is expected to try to tie West Virginia Democrats to the broader party's opposition to fossil fuel use. Morrisey's relatively short, but strong record on taking action to support coal may bolster such attacks.

"[Trump's] not going to just say 'I endorse a candidate,'" said Bill Bissett, president of the Huntington (W.Va.) Regional Chamber of Commerce. "He's going to come verbally after the opponent that he wants beat."

The president has already lobbed attacks at U.S. House candidate Richard Ojeda, a Democrat, whom he called "stone-cold crazy." Ojeda received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America over the coal trade association's pick of Republican Carol Miller.

The UMWA also recently backed Republican candidates such as Rep. David McKinley, who is running for re-election. The labor union once held major political sway in the state but has dwindled in size, especially in terms of actively employed miners.

While energy companies might see a boost to their bottom line if the president's effort to boost coal succeed, a return to the heyday of coal employment in the state is unlikely, Hickey said. So far, the state's coal employment gains have been relatively modest under Trump. Though West Virginia has enjoyed increased demand for metallurgical coal, especially abroad, nationwide coal production has held fairly flat and even declined in some quarters since he took office.

The state's residents, Hickey said, are seeing a president who more than any before him is paying attention to West Virginia. That could sway conservative Democrats who may support their party's candidates but, like the West Virginia Coal Association, are considering giving Trump more Republicans in Congress to accomplish his agenda.

"The Obama presidency sort of nationalized state politics," Hickey said. "You know, Trump has said a vote for Morrisey is a vote to Make America Great Again. I think that may have some power here."