Coal Country Voters Express Economic Pessimism

Key Senate races in West Virginia and Kentucky could be impacted

Coal power plant / Wikimedia Commons
February 10, 2014

The nation’s leading coal-producing states are among its most economically pessimistic according to a new Gallup poll, suggesting widespread concern over new environmental restrictions on the industry that could impact Senate elections in November.

Gallup’s economic confidence index ranks the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in terms of their views of "current U.S. economic conditions and their perceptions of the economy's direction."

Three of the four least economically confident states—West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky—are also the nation’s three largest coal producers. Two of them will see U.S. Senate races this year that are expected to be close.

Kentucky is a must-win for Republicans if they hope to retake the Senate majority next year. While most observers expect Senate Minority Leader Mitch McCnnell to prevail, recent polling has shown Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes with a slim lead.

The West Virginia race is also a must-win for Republicans. Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin, like Grimes, has heavily criticized efforts to more stringently regulate carbon emissions associated with coal power.

Local industry leaders blamed an EPA rule restricting carbon emissions by power plants for the increasing economic malaise in the two states.

"Kentucky and West Virginia, because of the nature of our economies, are going to be hit the hardest" by new regulations, said Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett in an interview.

Both states are worried about the impacts of the regulations on the coal industry, but Bissett said the concerns go beyond their direct economic effects.

"There is great concern [among] all the manufacturers that you find in Kentucky who are very electricity dependent," he explained. "We’re number one in aluminum smelting. We’re number three in automotive part production."

"A lot of other big companies that use a lot of electricity and those workers are concerned" that the regulations will increase electricity prices in coal country, Bissett said.

Some political observers note that measures of economic pessimism can often reflect more general political attitudes.

If a voter doesn’t like the president and his policies, explained University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, he or she is less likely to see the country moving in a positive direction.

"The job approval number … usually incorporates the public's view of the economy—whether they are happy or not, optimistic or not," Sabato said in an email. "My sense is that ‘economic confidence’ measurements are in part a reflection of people's politics and partisan identity, and their view of President Obama."

The president was trounced in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2012, and his approval ratings are lower there than in any other state in the country.

But Bissett rejected the partisanship explanation for declining economic confidence in the states.

"I take issue with that," Bissett said. "Where we’ve lost more than seven thousand direct coal mining jobs … is in our eastern Kentucky coal fields, which is a heavily Democratic area," he noted.

"I assure you, Democrats and Republicans, the vast majority of Kentuckians, are worried about this issue," he said.

Both parties used Gallup’s numbers to blame the other for misguided economic priorities.

"Voters in these states are tired of the lack of results, the broken promises, tired of the lies about Obamacare, the economic situation, and job creation," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring in a statement.

Justin Barasky, a spokesman for Democrats’ Senate counterpart, blamed economic woes in the states on Republicans’ "wildly unpopular agenda of Washington special interests and the Tea Party."

Both Republicans and Democrats in the two states have tried to bill themselves as pro-coal. But while the GOP needs only to stress its traditional pro-energy stance, Democrats in both states have been forced to distance themselves from the president and his EPA.

Grimes has accused McConnell of being ineffective in combatting EPA regulations.

McConnell recently unveiled legislation to block EPA regulations that would limit carbon emissions from power plants, citing Free Beacon reporting on behind-the-scenes collaboration between the agency and some of the nation’s most radical anti-coal groups.

"The real tragedy here is that those claiming to be fighting for the poor are not only making things worse in places like Eastern Kentucky, they’re deliberately ignoring the voices of those who live outside their comfortable Beltway cocoon," McConnell said in an emailed statement.

Grimes, Bissett said, "has had positive statements about coal, but she needs to make the case how she would do a better job as a leader, which is hard to understand when she takes money and counsel from [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid."