Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s entrance into the 2014 West Virginia Senate race could keep coal in the conversation despite a disastrous 2012 run for the coal industry.
In a speech Monday announcing her bid to take the seat that Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller has held since 1984, Capito pledged to “continue to stand up against the EPA’s dangerous and unconstitutional crusade to dictate our nation’s energy policy to the detriment of West Virginians.”
“We are a state rich in natural resources with our coal reserves, natural gas and even oil,” she said. “They have played a major role in the course of our state and driven our economy.”
Capito — who co-founded the Congressional Coal Caucus — made coal a big part of her reelection campaign this year, in which she trounced Democrat Howard Swint with a healthy 69.8 percent of the vote. Capito joined the House in 2000, when she became the first woman elected to the House from West Virginia who was not a widow of another member.
Capito “is leading the effort to stop the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of regulatory injunction and bureaucratic over-reach against the coal and natural gas industry,” her campaign website boasts. The site goes on to denounce “an overbearing EPA that is set on crushing West Virginia’s energy production.”
The “war on coal” was a mantra for nearly all the candidates in this year’s elections in West Virginia — with the battle turning into a contest on who could hate EPA more.
Capito received an immediate coal endorsement in the state, and there’s already a “Coal Miners for Capito” Facebook group. Its chairman, Roger Horton, describes himself as “a lifelong coal miner, a member of the UMWA, [and] a proud Democrat” in a statement posted on the page Monday.
“While we thank Sen. Rockefeller for his service over his long career, we believe he has lost his way and no longer reflects the views of the people of this state,” Horton said in the statement. “His recent statements on coal and coal mining show his loyalty is to Obama and not with West Virginia coal miners.”
Rockefeller, the subject of speculation about whether he’ll retire, has fueled the rumor mill by taking an increasingly hard line on the coal industry.
Earlier this year, Rockefeller took to the Senate floor to denounce a resolution by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) that aimed to pull back an EPA regulation on emissions from coal-burning power plants. “The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions,” Rockefeller said, dismissing the legislation as “foolish.”
Rockefeller denied that the speech was a sign he does not plan to run in 2014. Sources close to Rockefeller have said the rift between him and the coal industry dates back several years to friction created during the 2009-10 cap and trade negotiations. Rockefeller — who believes that human activity is exacerbating climate change — publicly skirted the issue during the Democratic-controlled Senate’s attempts at climate change legislation, but he had voted for a McCain-Lieberman cap and trade bill in 2003.
Rockefeller hasn’t officially said whether he’s running in 2014.
“Congresswoman Capito called last week to let me know of her plans, and I appreciated that,” Rockefeller said in a statement Sunday. “But my total focus right now is on the national budget situation and the fight for West Virginia families.”
His office declined to comment further Monday.
Capito said her announcement was meant to make her political intentions known so that she “can get back to work in Washington and avoid disruptive political speculation. It will also hopefully provide clarity and time for others to make decisions.”
Asked how the race could sway the miners’ unions, United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said that “with only one candidate actually in the race, it is way too premature to do anything like make an endorsement.”
“Besides, our endorsement process is a democratic, bottom-up process that takes many months to conclude,” Smith added. UMWA was split on the national level this year, declining to endorse a presidential candidate.
UMWA has “endorsed Sen. Rockefeller without hesitation in the past because of his tremendous work on behalf of coal miners and their families over his career, both in terms of keeping them safe and healthy on the job and in terms of securing decent retiree health care benefits for them and their widows,” Smith said. “There is no reason to assume he wouldn’t continue to work on miners’ behalf should he decide to run for and be elected to another term in the Senate.”
However, Smith noted that the union has seen promise for its issues in Capito, who proposed legislation in the House dealing with mine safety issues. “Unfortunately, the legislation she proposed to address miners’ health and safety concerns did not go anywhere in a ‘no new regulations no matter what’ GOP-controlled House,” Smith said.
West Virginia can be a state all unto itself when it comes to elections. Of note, the Senate Conservatives Fund announced Monday that it will not endorse Capito, calling her too liberal.
The race may seem familiar in more ways than one: Rockefeller lost a bid for the governor’s seat in the state to Capito’s father, Arch Moore Jr., in 1972. Rockefeller went on to two terms in the governor’s mansion, winning elections in 1976 and 1980.
The 1972 election was the last time Capito’s father got in Rockefeller’s way. Rockefeller heavily financed Democratic Sen. Jennings Randolph’s campaign for an unexpected final term in 1978, keeping Moore out of the seat that Rockefeller won in 1984 after leaving the Governor’s mansion. He thwarted Moore’s third run at the governor’s office in 1980 with hefty spending as well.
Capito’s father took back the governorship in 1985 for one more term. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to charges that he took illegal campaign payments and extorted money from a West Virginia coal company, Maben Energy Corp. He served nearly three years in federal prison.
In his 1984 Senate race, Rockefeller beat Republican John Raese — another name familiar to Mountain State voters. Raese has run for the Senate four times and was defeated again this month by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.