Obama’s Energy Legacy: Republican Coal Country

Coal production has steadily declined since President Obama’s first election, in part because of the administration’s effort to reduce carbon emissions over the next several decades.

Those green benefits may come in the long run, but the electoral impact on Democrats is rough. Since the 2010 elections, coal country turned against Democratic congressional candidates and never looked back.

Republicans now control 45 of the 51 congressional districts where there were active coal mines as of 2008, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. That’s a sharp decline from Obama’s first election in 2008, in which Republican won 29 districts in those locations and Democrats won 28.

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In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency instituted its first rule limiting carbon emissions from power plants. That rule affects coal-fired plants more than any other. That year, Republicans won 47 House seats to Democrats’ 10. The landscape has continued shifting in the GOP’s direction since then.

Obama’s presidency has meant hard times for coal-dependent areas. Coal production in the United States dropped from 1.2 million short tons in 2008 to less than 900,000 in 2015, according to the EIA. A study in Energy Policy found that the coal industry lost 49,000 jobs, about 12 percent of its workforce, from 2008-12. During that time, coal consumption in the U.S. declined 24 percent, while natural gas, wind, and solar power consumption grew substantially.

Obama’s actions on coal have been in the spotlight lately. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon emissions from existing power plants. That lawsuit is still working its way through the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The high court’s 5-4 decision to pause the rule’s enforcement during the proceedings hints that the justices are leaning toward blocking the rule if the lower court upholds it. The appeals court is expected to rule later this year, likely prompting an appeal from whichever side loses.

The fate of the Clean Power Plan grew more unpredictable following the unexpected death Justice Antonin Scalia. A new justice should be chosen by the time the Supreme Court rules in 2017 or 2018. That decision, then, largely hinges on the next president. (If there is still an open seat when the Supreme Court rules, a 4-4 tie would uphold the lower court’s ruling.)


Meanwhile, coal country keeps electing Republicans. The GOP’s dominance of coal country is most pronounced in federal politics, but it’s also trending in the same direction on the state level. Republicans control 81 of 108 state Senate districts and 130 of 196 state House districts where mines were active as of 2008.

In the 15 states where at least 1,000 people were employed at coal mines as of 2013, 10 of 15 governors are Republican, 18 of 30 U.S. senators are Republican. Republicans control 25 of 30 state legislative chambers (state Senate and/or state House).

Tracking election results in districts that had active coal mines as of 2008 is just one way of measuring the political mood of coal country, and it’s not perfectly precise. Communities near coal-fired power plants could be just as economically dependent on coal, and so could areas where people work in manufacturing facilities that produce equipment used in mines or power plants.

But the snapshot provided by the election results from these districts leaves little room for doubt. Where there are coal mines, there is a steep drop-off in Democratic victories in districts that had once been considered competitive. Republicans control 88 percent of coal country’s U.S. House seats, 75 percent of state Senate seats, and 66 percent of state House seats.

Map: Coal-Heavy States in U.S. House; % Districts With Coal Active Mines*

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*Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming all have one at-large House seat and at least one coal mine in the state.


Kentucky may best illustrate coal country’s shift away from the national Democratic Party. It has morphed from a swing state to a deep red state in presidential elections. Democrats still control the state House. They held the governor’s mansion until last year’s loss. But the Democrats who are still in office in Kentucky campaign and legislate differently than most Democrats in Congress. They keep their distance from Obama.

“We were the backbone of the Democratic Party for generations, the United Mine Workers and the people who worked in these mines,” said Kentucky state Rep. Chris Harris, a Democrat who represents Pike County, on the state’s border with Virginia and West Virginia. “They feel like the national Democratic Party has pulled the rug out from under them. They just jerked the rug out and watched us bleed to death.”

Twenty districts in Kentucky’s state House had active coal mines as of 2008, and Democrats currently hold the majority 13 of those seats. At the state Senate level, however, Republicans control 7 of the 10 districts in these areas.

Harris said he doesn’t have trouble keeping his distance from Obama, because Kentucky state House politics are locally focused. But for congressional or statewide candidates, he said Republicans’ generalized attacks against Democrats are effective. He says Obama is “toxic.”

“Right now, there’s not a presidential candidate that I have support for,” Harris said. “Republicans are too Republican, and Democrats are against coal.”

In major elections, Democrats have struggled with generic attacks from Republicans. Former state Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2015, lost to Republican Matt Bevin after a consistent stream of attacks tying him to Obama on coal policy.

From the start of the race, Conway aggressively separated himself from the president, frequently noting that he filed a lawsuit over EPA coal regulations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s successful reelection campaign in 2014 was a turning point for Kentucky Republicans. He convinced voters that any Democrat would enable Obama, regardless of whether that candidate said he or she supports coal, said Dale Emmons, a long-time Kentucky Democratic campaign strategist.

“Coal and Obama are synonymous because of McConnell’s reelection campaign,” Emmons said. “He did a brilliant job. It did have an impact because of people who came to vote because they were mad as hell and wanted to punish somebody.”


There are broader cultural rifts between coal country and Democrats. Nationally, Democrats have become increasingly white collar and concentrated in urban areas, a distinct difference from coal country residents.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who represents a coal-dependent portion of southern Illinois, said cultural clashes with Obama go beyond energy. “It’s their jobs, their guns, and their god,” Bost said, noting that many coal-mining regions are within the Bible Belt.

Bost’s district is one that should be competitive but isn’t. After unseating Democrat Bill Enyart in 2014, Bost was left off the DCCC’s list of top targets for 2016. The DCCC also decided against targeting Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who represents an adjacent district.

As of 2014, Republicans controlled all four of Illinois’s congressional districts that had active coal mines as of 2008. In 2008, Democrats won two of five.

Other midwestern and Appalachian states have seen a similar shift. In West Virginia, then-Rep. Nick Rahall’s (D-W.V.) 2014 loss was the end of an era. Rahall had represented the southern portion of the state since 1977. He lost to Evan Jenkins, a state senator who had switched from Democrat to Republican in July 2013 in order to challenge Rahall. Republicans now hold all three of West Virginia’s congressional districts. In 2008, Democrats won two of three.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats went from holding five of eight coal-mining districts in 2008 to just one of eight in 2014. In Ohio, the party went from holding three of four coal-mining districts in 2008 to none.


At the state legislative level, Arizona recently had a high-profile party switches in a coal-dependent area. Sen. Carlyle Begay announced he would switch from Democrat to Republican. Begay’s district encompasses much of the Navajo Nation, where Peabody Energy’s Kayenta coal mine and the Navajo Generating Station are both major employers. The Navajo unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent to 50 percent, and coal represents about one-third of the Navajo government’s general fund, Begay said.

Begay told Morning Consult that he switched parties because he wanted to have a good working relationship with Republicans who control the state legislature. He had previously supported a Republican state budget in order to secure funding for infrastructure in his district. A strong relationship with state legislative leaders could be particularly useful if the state government must to develop a plan to cut emissions under the CPP, he said.

“The continued attempt of regulations on coal mining, and the economic impact on the Navajo Nation, could devastate, truly, an entire economy that is already struggling,” Begay said.

Morning Consult