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West Virginia Poll: Coal is not top issue for most WV voters

By Dave Boucher, Capitol Bureau Chief

The future of the coal industry isn’t the top priority for the vast majority of West Virginians likely to vote to send someone to Congress this year, according to a new West Virginia Poll.

A little more than 16 percent of people polled chose “the future of coal” among seven other options when asked what issue “is the most important to your vote for Congress this year?” Only 10 percent said it was the second most important issue to their vote.

Unemployment and jobs, health care and the federal budget all registered as higher priorities for the 401 people polled. R.L. Repass conducts the West Virginia Poll for the Charleston Daily Mail.

Much of the political advertising from West Virginia’s Democrat and Republican candidates for federal office has in some way focused on coal or criticizing federal energy policy.

While it might not be the biggest issue driving voters to the polls, it’s a means for both Democrats and Republicans in West Virginia to kill several political birds with one stone, argued one political strategist.

“How do Republicans win in a Democratic state? They tie Democrats to Obama and the war on coal. That’s how it’s happened recently,” said the operative, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely about campaign strategy.

“How do Democrats distance themselves from Washington? They shoot Obama’s cap-and-trade bill. They turn out the lights at the White House. That’s the most effective way for Democrats to try and distance themselves and that’s the most effective way for Republicans to argue the opposite.”

In response to questions from the Daily Mail about the poll results, campaigns argued coal happens to be one of many issues important to their candidates and ties in to creating new jobs.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., wears a hardhat as he tours a coal mine in his own recent ad, and United Mine Workers of America union President Cecil Roberts endorsed Rahall in an ad earlier this year.

“Rep. Rahall’s priority will continue to be jobs and standing up for West Virginia’s working families in the Third District, which includes fighting for coal miners and their families,” said Sam Raymond, Rahall’s campaign manager.

He didn’t respond to a question about what information the campaign uses to dictate how it creates its messaging or advertising.

The Rahall campaign has repeatedly attacked his opponent, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, on coal, accusing him of trying to make it harder for miners to receive black lung benefits and accusing him of having the financial support of controversial coal baron Don Blankenship. Jenkins and outside organizations, like Koch-brother backed Americans For Prosperity, continually accuses Rahall of favoring a carbon tax and being beholden to the president on energy policy.

“Evan has worked with both parties to address every issue important to West Virginians, such as passing a landmark law ensuring insurance coverage for children with autism, protecting the retirement benefits our seniors and veterans earned, and creating good jobs in growing new industries,” said Andy Sere, a campaign strategist for Jenkins.

“He also knows that coal drives West Virginia’s economy, and the revenues coal provides helps fund critical government services like health care, education and public safety.”

Internal polling in the 3rd District obtained by the Daily Mail shows wording can make a difference for how residents view issues that could affect their votes. In March, 23 percent of people polled said that stopping “Obama’s war on coal” was their top priority. In May that dropped down to 18 percent — behind 20 percent who saw “jobs” as the top priority.

Democrat West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant gained national attention for a television advertisement where she illustrated standing up to President Barack Obama’s coal policies by figuratively shutting out the lights to the White House.

The ad drew some comparisons to one from the 2010 campaign U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.W.Va., where he used a rifle to blast a hole in legislation popular with national Democrats but unpopular in West Virginia.

“While Congresswoman (Shelley Moore) Capito has tried to make this campaign about Washington, Natalie Tennant has been traveling all 55 counties talking about the issues West Virginians care about, including coal, jobs, minimum wage, education and combating drug abuse,” said Jenny Donohue, a campaign spokeswoman.

“Congresswoman Capito is desperate to make this race about President Obama and Washington politicians because she knows her record working for Wall Street doesn’t stack up to Natalie Tennant’s record working for West Virginia.”

Capito, a Republican, recently released an ad where she’s standing with miners wearing their traditional “stripes” as she discusses her endorsement by the West Virginia Coal Association and her promise to fight the president’s “war on coal.”

Her campaign accuses Tennant of defending the president’s energy policies while also arguing Capito is aware of and ready to fight for an array of other issues.

“Coal is important to this state and it is important to Shelley. That’s why coal has been one of the major topics of this campaign,” said Amy Graham, Capito campaign spokeswoman.

“Natalie Tennant defended Obama’s anti-coal policies saying she didn’t see them as getting rid of coal, and clearly West Virginians aren’t buying her attempts to now distance herself from her support of Obama and his anti-coal agenda.”

Tennant toured all 55 counties before unveiling several policy agendas. One focused on coal and energy, but others focused on education, technology and fighting drug abuse. Capito also recently unveiled a jobs plan and

both made coal and energy the cornerstones of their speeches Thursday at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce annual summit at the Greenbrier.

Alex Mooney, the GOP nominee in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, dons his own hard hat in a recent ad where he too pledges to fight the “war on coal.” The former Maryland GOP party chairman determined coal was one “concern” of many for voters in the district, said campaign spokesman Nick Clemens.

“Alex has spoken about many issues on the campaign trail, from jobs to health care to protecting seniors to the national debt to our Second Amendment rights to the importance of infrastructure spending,” Clemens said.

“These include the War on Coal and Obamacare, but also include other issues relating to jobs, including Obama’s larger regulatory overreach, high taxes, and the uncertainty created by our skyrocketing debt. These are the issues that West Virginians care about and these are the issues Alex will continue to talk about on the campaign trail.”

Mooney’s opponent, Democrat Nick Casey, is one of few political candidates not yet to appear in a campaign ad wearing a hardhat. He’s spent as much time as any other candidate criticizing the president’s energy policies though.

His campaign argues achieving energy independence is a priority, but he’s also committed to improving roads and bridges and creating a “true budget.”

“People are interested in hearing about my experiences in helping businesses and how to keep West Virginia an energy leader rather than about ideological or social issues,” Casey said.

“Voters want problem solvers and solutions. They are tired of artificial political confrontations and threats of government shutdowns.”

Rex Repass, whose firm conducted the poll, said he thought the future of coal would have registered as a higher voter priority.

“It surprised me a little bit,” Repass said, noting how frequently political and business leaders discuss the future of the industry,

“I think from a public perspective it is very important and it is related to unemployment and jobs.”

The poll contacted people in all 55 counties using online surveys, landlines and cellphones. Once someone chose an issue as “most important” they could not choose the same issue as “second most important,” Repass said.

Other issues to choose from included immigration, security and terrorism, education or other.

The general election is Nov. 4.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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