BECKLEY, W.Va. — As endorsements go, Senate candidate Shelley Moore Capito could do a lot worse than the man who trounced President Barack Obama in West Virginia two years ago.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, headlined a rally here on Tuesday for Capito and two U.S. House candidates, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins. Capito, a seven-term congresswoman representing the state’s 2nd district, is seeking the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) She faces Democratic nominee and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant in the Nov. 4 election.
With Obama’s reputation in West Virginia in tatters — due in no small part to his support for strict new limitations on coal-fired power plants — and Romney having won all 55 of the state’s counties in 2012, the political scion and former governor was the perfect surrogate to rally Mountain State voters, analysts say.
“[Romney] won 62 percent of the vote in West Virginia,” notes political analyst Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election-forecasting site at the University of Virginia. “So he’s good for rallying some troops and bucking up support for Capito.”
With a large American flag and campaign signs for Capito, Mooney and Jenkins serving as their backdrop, Romney and the three candidates took the stage to a standing ovation from a crowd of about 500 at the Tamarack conference center here.
“We Republicans, we conservatives care about education and family and energy and good jobs,” Romney said after officially endorsing Capito and the two House hopefuls. “So I know we have the team here that we need to get this country going again.”
The topics listed by Romney during his speech are typical bread-and-butter issues for both Republicans and Democrats. But energy, in particular, is one that resonates in West Virginia like no other. The state’s identity, fiscally and culturally, is closely tied to coal, and the already struggling industry is bracing for the fallout from Obama’s plan to curb coal-plant emissions.
Coal lobbyists and industry officials say the new regulations would cost the state mining jobs and coal-related revenue, and would hit the poor especially hard in the form of higher heating bills. Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency say the new rules are needed to curb carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Many scientists say the warming of the planet has already led to more severe and more frequent storms, threatening lives and leading to billions of dollars in damage and lost revenue.
Many Republicans, and some Democrats, including Tennant, have decried the new rules as needless overregulation that will sound the death knell of West Virginia coal.
Romney and Capito, however, say Tennant has proven herself a loyal acolyte of Obama’s with her support for him during both the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. The former GOP standard-bearer says electing Republicans to Congress will help combat the president’s “job-killing” policies.
“This is the team that’s going to Washington,” Romney told the crowd. “And they’re going to stand for coal.”
But Tennant’s campaign has fought back, pointing to a 2003 speech in which Romney denounced a coal-powered facility.
“That plant kills people,” then-Governor Romney said as he stood in front of a polluted coal plant in Salem, Mass.
Tennant’s camp says it’s hypocritical for Capito to criticize the Democrat’s appearance last month with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a liberal who supports the EPA’s coal-plant regulations, while accepting the endorsement of a man who made it a mission to shut down coal-powered plants in the Bay State.
“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 in a statement following the announcement of Romney’s visit last week.
Republicans point out, though, that Romney wasn’t targeting coal, per se, during his time as Massachusetts governor. Rather, it was heavily polluted plants with a history of environmental violations, they say.
But Democrats say Romney’s efforts to close the plants aren’t the only evidence of his anti-coal record. They allege that the so-called “war on coal” — a catchphrase Republicans like to mention in the same breath as Obama and Tennant — actually started with a Massachusetts lawsuit the Romney administration filed in 2007. The Supreme Court ruling in the suit cleared the way for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — a decision, Tennant says, that eventually led to the new federal coal-plant regulations criticized by Capito and Romney.
But Republicans say tying Romney to the lawsuit is a stretch, at best. While he did not object to it at the time, the suit was actually brought by his attorney general. Romney says he has always favored an all-of-the-above approach to energy production, and does not oppose coal-powered facilities or the mining industry.
“I was a guy who was campaigning, saying all-of-the-above, and I’m serious about that,” Romney said after Tuesday’s rally. “We need to use all our resources — coal, natural gas, wind, everything. I am not against coal.”
Capito said she’s proud to have Romney’s support, saying he’s “a friend of West Virginia jobs and West Virginia coal” — something she claims Tennant is not.
“I’ll stand by him and with him to advocate for an energy policy which includes all those miners you saw in that room today,” she said after the rally, referring to a contingent of coal industry workers who turned out for the event.
Romney and the three candidates kept their remarks short, and for the most part stuck to a script that focused more on Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid than on their own virtues.
“West Virginians deserve leaders who will stand up against Obama’s anti-coal agenda,” Romney said.
Added Capito: “I am ready to take our fight to President Obama, Harry Reid or anyone else who wants to cast our state aside.”
The Senate race in West Virginia is being closely watched by both parties. For Republicans, the campaign represents a golden “pickup” opportunity — a chance to flip a Democratic seat into the GOP column. That’s key to their hopes to take over the Senate this year. Most analysts believe they have a good shot at it — the party needs to flip at least six seats in the November election. Most forecasts show the party will likely pick up at least four, with another two to four possible.
Capito has led Tennant by anywhere from eight to 10 points throughout the campaign, largely by tying her to the unpopular president. Tennant has tried to shake the perception that she would back Obama at every turn. She has been critical of the president on issues from coal to healthcare. But Capito’s camp has continued to pound away at Tennant’s support for Obama during his presidential campaigns and at her refusal to say whether she would vote against Reid as majority leader if she wins.
Neil Berch, a political science professor at West Virginia University, says Tennant needs to switch her focus if she has any hope of catching Capito.
“[Her] task in the immediate future is to do a better job of defining what she’s for, rather than what she’s against,” Berch said. “It seemed obvious going in that Capito would try to run against Obama, but Tennant has done the same thing. [She needs to] define what she’s for and also define her differences with Capito more sharply.”
Berch said a visit from a Democratic star — someone in the same league as Romney, or even bigger — might help her cause. He doubts that’s going to happen, though, without polls showing Tennant closing the gap.
“A Clinton visit, especially from Bill, would be a big boost,” he said. “But they’re not coming unless it gets close.”