When Democrat Natalie Tennant invited Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to stump for her Senate bid in West Virginia earlier this summer, her opponent’s campaign pounced. Republican Shelley Moore Capito’s spokeswoman immediately criticized Tennant for bringing in “one of the staunchest opponents of coal” to the Mountain State, saying the decision highlights Tennant’s “hypocrisy” on the emotional issue.
Six weeks later, though, Tennant is turning the tables on her Republican foe. Now Tennant’s camp is the one charging hypocrisy, noting Capito’s embrace of another Massachusetts pol with an anti-coal streak: 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor will attend a fundraiser for Capito on Monday night in Charleston, and will headline a rally for her the following day in Beckley, where he will endorse her and two Republican House candidates, Alex Mooney and state Sen. Evan Jenkins.
Tennant, West Virginia’s secretary of state, and Capito, who represents the state’s second district in Congress, are vying to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)
‘That Plant Kills People’
After the Capito campaign announced Romney’s visit last week, Tennant’s campaign pointed to a speech the then-governor made in 2003 in front of a Salem, Mass. coal-burning plant. Doctors and other health experts had said the plant, which Romney accused of being one of the state’s worst polluters, was responsible for 30 premature deaths per year.
“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people,” Romney said at the time.
Two years earlier, he supported new rules passed by Massachusetts to reduce power-plant emissions.
“The fact that Congresswoman Capito would align herself with someone who believes coal ‘kills people’ just to make a quick buck shows how quickly she will turn her back on West Virginia coal miners to get Wall Street dollars,” Tennant spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said this week.
She said Romney has been, and will continue to be, “coal’s No. 1 enemy.” The charges are similar to those made by President Barack Obama in 2012, when he raised the same “that-plant-kills” quote in a debate with Romney that fall. Romney says he changed his mind about coal and now supports it — much as Tennant has said she supported Obama in 2012, but opposes his own plan to reduce emissions at coal plants.
Tennant: No Rubber Stamp For Obama
The Democrat’s campaign hopes the flap over Romney’s statements on coal will short-circuit the Capito camp’s constant drumbeat over Tennant’s support for Obama’s reelection in 2012. Tennant, Republicans say, would be a rubber stamp for the new regulations Obama wants on coal-burning power facilities. The new mandates, which may still be revised, would be devastating to the mining industry in West Virginia, Capito says.
But Tennant says that while she supported Obama in 2012, she is an ardent supporter of coal, and as senator would fight the regulations, and work to save the state’s mining industry.
Capito’s Camp: Obama To Blame
Capito’s spokeswoman was quick to fire back this week at the Tennant campaign’s criticism of the Romney invite, saying Tennant’s position is, in a roundabout way, a defense of Obama.
“Natalie Tennant is once again defending Obama’s anti-coal policies by saying Mitt Romney — not Barack Obama — is coal’s number one enemy,” Graham said. “She just can’t seem to let her 2008 and 2012 position on Team Obama go.”
Graham points out that in 2012, Romney beat Obama in West Virginia by a hefty margin, winning all 55 of the state’s counties.
“There are no doubts in the minds of West Virginians that Obama is to blame for the war being waged on West Virginia coal,” she said.
Graham did not, however, specifically address the questions Tennant’s camp raised about Romney’s record on coal.
Tennant At Disadvantage
There are differences between the two campaigns’ use of Warren and Romney to score points and label each other a hypocrite. In addition to coal, for instance, the Capito campaign also sought to link Tennant to Warren’s more-liberal positions on the Second Amendment and Obamacare, among others.
Tennant’s campaign, on the other hand, zeroed in solely on Romney’s coal stance.
The different approaches highlight one of the biggest challenges for Tennant, who, for the record, supports the Second Amendment and largely opposes Obamacare in its present form. Most of the national Democratic Party’s positions — from guns and health care, to the environment and abortion — don’t go over well in West Virginia. That means Capito can target Tennant on those issues, regardless of her personal position, analysts say.
The national GOP’s policies, though, fare much better in the Mountain State, leaving Tennant with far less to work with when trying to tie Capito to a national surrogate like Romney. Obama’s unpopularity in West Virginia, and the state’s rightward tilt in recent elections, is the main reason Tennant has trailed Capito throughout the campaign, analysts say. But the deficit, while not tiny, isn’t insurmountable. Capito’s lead is currently at about 9 points in most polls, and with nearly three months before the election, Tennant could still make a move.
Romney Could Deliver Conservative Democrats
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said the dust-up over Romney’s past position on coal isn’t likely to hurt Capito. For one thing, it’s no surprise that Romney, as a matter of political pragmatism, would oppose coal-polluting plants in the Bay State.
“You can’t be pro-coal and win in Massachusetts,” Farnsworth said.
And whatever West Virginians think about Romney and his past position on coal doesn’t outweigh the potential votes he could help deliver to Capito.
“Mitt Romney is more popular now than when he was a candidate for president,” he said. “He speaks to that moderate cross section of voters — the conservative Democrats and independents — that Capito needs to win. In that sense, he could be very valuable.”
Indeed, West Virginia’s registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the state, even as the state has voted increasingly for GOP candidates in recent years. To win in November, Capito, therefore, needs to appeal to those centrist Democrats. And with her consistent lead in the polls, it appears Capito, for now at least, is doing just that.
“At this point,” Farnsworth said, “this isn’t a particularly close race.”