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Tomblin beat Maloney in the coalfields

WEST Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his Republican challenger, Bill Maloney, are elbowing each other on the issue of coal industry jobs.

Tomblin starts out with a natural advantage. He's from southern West Virginia's coal country. He has traditionally sided with the coal industry during his years in the Legislature and he has been endorsed by the West Virginia Coal Association.

But Tomblin also has a problem.

The coal industry is in a slump. Market conditions, competition from lower-priced natural gas and a tougher regulatory environment are causing slowdowns and layoffs.

State officials say the mining sector has lost about 3,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, and more layoffs are forecast through the middle of next year. The mine shutdowns are reverberating through mine supply businesses, triggering additional layoffs.

Just this week, Alpha Energy announced it is shutting down two mines in Fayette County and two in Mingo County, putting up to 400 more people out of work.

Maloney wants voters to blame Tomblin. The Republican released a statement calling the Alpha layoffs tragic, adding: "But what is even more tragic is that Earl Ray Tomblin won't stand up and protect the jobs of these hardworking people."

The Tomblin campaign knows the coal decline is a problem, particularly in southern West Virginia, especially since Tomblin campaigns on the theme of "more jobs."

The coal counties pulled Tomblin through in last year's special election, where he beat Maloney by just 7,500 votes.

Tomblin is responding with, among other things, a TV ad touting his support of the industry. Notably, Tomblin specifically mentions President Obama. "Since the day I became governor, I've fought the Obama administration's war on coal," Tomblin says in the commercial.

What will those southern West Virginia voters do?

Tomblin hopes the Democratic majorities will actually turn out. An unpopular Democratic president at the top of the ticket and the decision by the United Mine Workers to stay out of the race will likely suppress the vote.

Maloney, who largely ignored southern West Virginia in the 2011 race, is spending time and resources there this time. He's trying to make this essentially a recall election on Tomblin, arguing that the stay-the-course approach by Tomblin in last year's race has led to economic turmoil.

The downside of a recall strategy, as opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found out earlier this year, is that voters may look at the Tomblin-Maloney race and say, "Hey, we already decided this last year."

Joe Manchin won two terms as governor in easy elections (2004 and 2008), and one of the reasons was the strength of the coal industry. Coal boomed between 2003 and 2011, providing good-paying jobs, economic growth and a flush treasury.

However, the cooling off of coal makes it much harder for incumbent politicians, particularly in this governor's race, to make their case in a part of the state reeling from the effects of the slowdown.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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