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Stage set for coal-fueled Senate fight in state where Trump promised rebound

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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., hugs out-of-work coal miner Bo Copley in Williamson, W.Va., after Copley confronted presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on May 2, 2016. Copley is now challenging Manchin for his U.S. Senate seat.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

While it might be difficult to imagine a political race more coal-centric than West Virginia's 2016 gubernatorial square-off between a billionaire coal operator and an industry-backed opponent with the last name "Cole," a 2018 match for a U.S. Senate seat in the state is shaping up to be just that.

"We can make this into a play or an opera," said Robert Rupp, a political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College who studies the state's elections. "I think this is an extraordinary tableau of many people all showing a coal connection."

Democrat incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin is known for a 2010 campaign ad in which he put a literal bullet in the pages of a cap-and-trade bill. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Republican from the coal-heavy southern district of West Virginia, has stood beside President Donald Trump as he rolled back regulations on the industry and hosted the president at an Aug. 3 event in Huntington, W.Va.

Republican primary challenger West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has been hailed by industry as their general in the "war on coal" for his efforts in securing a stay of the Clean Power Plan.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, recently out of prison after serving a year for a misdemeanor mine safety charge stemming from the investigation of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 workers, has also hinted at taking a run for the seat. At the other end of the coal mining organization chart, out-of-work miner Bo Copley has thrown his hat in the ring.

The only active candidate in the race so far to make a case against coal expansion — Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin — is a "coal miner's daughter, granddaughter, niece and stepdaughter."

An election year following months of presidential cheerleading for coal and promises of bringing back its jobs will likely intensify the focus on coal. Even pro-coal crowds could clash. Gov. Jim Justice has been heavily criticized by Murray Energy Corp. CEO Robert Murray, a recurrent Republican political donor who also has had access to the Trump administration. Murray is increasingly involved in West Virginia politics since buying coal mines in the state.

While Murray has attended bill signings alongside the president, Justice recently joined Trump onstage in West Virginia to change his party from Democrat to Republican as both touted the future of coal.

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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks at a ceremony in which President Donald Trump signed a congressional measure repealing the Stream Protection Rule. Manchin's 2018 challenger and co-sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., applauds just behind the podium.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

West Virginia's coal

"One cannot understand the role of West Virginia politics without understanding the role of coal and its history and its present political dynamics," Rupp said. "The state's identity, although less and less its economy, is based on the image of coal."

West Virginia is the second-largest coal-producing state in the nation, behind Wyoming. Coal mining in Appalachia is generally more labor intensive, meaning higher costs, which are tolerated by specialty and metallurgical coal buyers, but less so by utilities with access to cheaper coal or other forms of generating electricity.

In 2008, the year President Barack Obama was first elected, West Virginia had 409 mines producing 157.8 million tons of coal. By 2015, that figure had dropped to 223 mines producing about 95.6 million tons.

While campaigning in 2016, Trump not only promised to be sympathetic to miners as other politicians have done, he promised they were going back to work.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data shows production and jobs have risen, but in the back half of 2016, before Trump took office. Since then, employment ticked slightly upward as production has dipped back down, though still above year-ago levels.

"Coal trains are running, coal trucks are full, coal barges are heading down the river," Jenkins said in an interview. "West Virginia coal is coming back."

Through a West Virginia lens, the view is accurate. Federal data shows West Virginia coal production in the second quarter rose 22.8% from 19.6 million tons in the year-ago period. After a long period of declining production, the past two quarters of West Virginia coal production are at levels not seen since the middle of 2015. Employment numbers have followed, with average West Virginia coal mine employment springing up 19.6% from the third-quarter 2016 low of 11,507 jobs.

Will the numbers matter?

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Whether Trump has reversed or even can reverse a decline in coal production and employment might not actually matter to voters. Coal is an economic issue, but also a "proxy for larger cultural factors" at play in West Virginia, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, an elections website from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"I think Republicans have successfully convinced many West Virginians the national Democratic party is hostile to West Virginia culture, which includes coal," Kondik said. "If elections are being determined on those kinds of lines, probably actual results matter less than cultural posturing."

No politician in West Virginia, Rupp predicts, will be elected without saying they are going to do something for coal.

"They are all going to be tripping over each other to support Trump and herald coal," Rupp said.

The former president of the Kentucky Coal Association, Bill Bissett, now president and CEO of Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce in West Virginia, said in his new role that he is still talking about coal because of how important it is to many of his members.

"People are still very concerned about the future of the industry, but people want it to have a future," Bissett said. "In most cases, they do want to diversify the economy, but not at the expense of coal."

Bissett and many other election watchers are expecting Trump, who won every county in the state, to remain popular with West Virginia voters who may be thinking about the president when they cast their vote for Senate in 2018. He said he would expect candidates to pitch themselves to voters as the best candidate for the industry.

"It might be less about who's done more for coal and more about who can appear that they've done the most for coal," Bissett said.

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What they've done for coal

As a senator, Manchin has aimed to make a name as a bipartisan dealmaker willing to reach across the aisle. He joined U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry on a recent tour of the Longview Power LLC coal-fired plant where he touted coal's future.

"We want a balance between the economy and the environment," Manchin insisted.

The senator has said he wants to see investment in new coal technologies that allow coal to be burned with fewer emissions, and he believes the Obama administration was not willing to help. Manchin even suggested a coming grid reliability study by the Energy department, decried by many Democrats, could justify including incentives that would allow coal to dispatch to the grid even when it was not the cheapest source available.

When Jenkins, the Republican House member challenging Manchin, talks about the Obama administration, he often peppers responses with phrases like "devastating" and "overreach."

"The hangover from eight years of Obama's job-killing regulations is going to be long," Jenkins said in an interview.

He believes Manchin is a "good politician" but one from the Washington, D.C., "swamp" and Morrisey is a "good lawyer" but also lacking in governing experience and willing to abandon his duties as attorney general. Jenkins said West Virginians are looking for policymakers who have stood alongside the president and will continue to do so.

"I spent an entire hour with him on the plane ride [aboard Air Force One] talking about issues including coal mining, coal miners, black lung and how to get people back to work," Jenkins noted.

One of the first victories for coal under the Trump administration was a rarely used legislative method employed for a reversal of the Obama administration's Stream Protection Rule. While the officials who created the rule said the impact on mining and employment would be minimal, Jenkins insists his actions as co-sponsor of the bill saved "one-third of all coal jobs in America" that would have been lost had the rule gone into effect.

Morrisey will likely tout his role in working to win a Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan and other high-profile battles, in which he has directly taken on the Obama administration.

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West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sits for a photograph that accompanied an Associated Press feature touting the 2018 Senate candidate as a "rising star" in the GOP willing to fight the Obama administration on coal and other issues.

AP Photo/John Raby

Reached through social media, he said he would be happy to lay out the differences on coal issues in the race, but his campaign did not respond to interview requests. In an early 2017 interview, however, he said that while reversing trends in West Virginia coal would not be as simple as "turning the switch back on," he does see a path toward a comeback.

"We think there can be better days ahead and we're going to keep fighting for that while we protect our environment," Morrisey said.

Copley also did not respond to an interview request, but the out-of-work coal miner has positioned himself as the "exact opposite of Manchin" in other interviews. He gained notoriety after a public confrontation with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton after comments suggesting coal jobs would be replaced by her administration.

"You walk a mile in someone else's shoes — you tend to fight for that person a little harder than what you might have in the past and I think I wear the same shoes as a lot of people," Copley told West Virginia MetroNews of the ability of his story to resonate with West Virginia voters.

Blankenship, the former coal executive, has told West Virginia media a Senate run is a "possibility." He has feuded with Manchin and challenged the incumbent senator on a number of issues, including criticisms from Manchin about the former Massey CEO's role in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, which occurred while Manchin was governor.

"Why won't Joe Manchin debate me? Let's put Joe Manchin up there … and let's see what he's made of," Blankenship, who insists he did nothing wrong, told S&P Global Market Intelligence on a phone call placed the day he was released from prison in California.

Blankenship, who touts himself as an "American competitionist" on his website, has a long history of participating in West Virginia politics as a donor and had been at the center of several political controversies before the explosion. Blankenship did not respond to a request for an interview about his potential run.

Swearengin also did not respond to an interview request, but she did recently offer insight into her views on coal in an open forum on the website Reddit. She noted she lives just three miles from a mountaintop removal coal operation owned by Justice. She said she chose to run because Manchin "refused to listen to our pleas for help" at a town hall.

"We shouldn't have to fight each other for basic human rights like clean water, clean air and [to] have access to jobs to provide for our families," she said. "We have no promise of a stable economic future with the market for coal being down. It has always been an unreliable and unstable economic resource."