Stoking Democratic Fears In Coal Country

Cook's Dave Wasserman co-wrote this with me for today's issue of National Journal.  Hope you enjoy. Democrats' sorrows in Appalachia aren't new. But the party's decline in Buchanan County, Va., which is tucked into the corner where the commonwealth bumps into West Virginia and Kentucky, is a prime illustration of how Democratic fortunes in the region have fallen off a cliff since the 2008 election.

The hills in Buchanan (pronounced BUCK-an-an) are forbidding and seemingly random, unlike the endless spines of Virginia's Blue Ridge. Viewed from above, the topography looks like crumpled paper. "It's not easy to get into or out of Buchanan," says Tommy Morris, Virginia's Education secretary and a native of Galax, a town about 100 miles to the southeast. "There are only three major roads going in and out, and it's not the kind of county where you could drive around it in a circle. You'd have to leave and come back another way." The fog that cloaks every hill and hollow only adds to the sense of isolation.

Buchanan's livelihood has always been coal. In 1990, at the peak of coal production in Virginia, Buchanan produced 45 percent of the state's total, tens of thousands of tons. At that time, the United Mine Workers of America had an iron grip on the county -- its culture, its lifestyle, its economy, and especially its politics. The UMWA, the de facto regional Democratic machine, helped Bill Clinton take 63 percent of Buchanan's vote in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, even though he didn't win the state either time.

As coal production has declined in Buchanan and the rest of the region, however, so has the Democrats' success. The Democratic presidential nominee carried Buchanan in every election but one between 1932, when the UMWA start unionizing the region, and 2004. "We're pretty conservative 'Blue Dog' Democrats," county Democratic Chairman Vern Presley explains. In 2008, however, Barack Obama lost Buchanan to Republican John McCain, 47 percent to 52 percent, while carrying the state with 53 percent of the vote.

Obama's shortfall in Buchanan didn't prepare dismayed Democrats for today's tectonic mood-shift. In just one year's time, discomfort with Obama has given way to an open, full-scale revolt against the majority party's agenda, particularly on coal. In the 2005 battle for attorney general of Virginia, rural-rooted Democrat Creigh Deeds beat Republican Bob McDonnell 61 percent to 39 percent in Buchanan. When the two faced off in the 2009 gubernatorial contest, Deeds's share of the Buchanan vote plummeted 24 points while falling just 9 points statewide.

Down the ballot, Buchanan's Democratic delegate to the General Assembly, Dan Bowling, fell victim to the 2009 GOP landslide. Bowling, who used the song "Working in a Coal Mine" on his state legislative website and had been re-elected without GOP opposition in 2007, lost by 14 points to 25-year-old Republican newcomer Will Morefield. "It was all cap-and-trade," says Buchanan's GOP chairman, Jerry Lester, referring to congressional Democrats' energy bill, which is intended to reduce the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions. "I've never seen a depth of anger like this. People feel like stuff has been forced down their throat."

Die-hard Democrat Ralph Kinder, 76, has worked the polls in Bowling's delegate district for more than 40 years and notes that 32 of the 34 campaigns for which he has volunteered succeeded. But Bowling's loss "took me by surprise," Kinder says. "They were trying to send the president and Congress a message. It wasn't Dan personally."

Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher, who has represented the southwest Virginia-based 9th District since 1983 and whose faded campaign stickers can be seen on old Jeep Cherokees across coal country, agrees that "voters were sending the administration a message." Boucher says they were upset with Democrats for a slew of reasons, especially the Obama administration's coal policy.

Bowling also points to the House-passed cap-and-trade legislation, on which Boucher was a lead broker, as a driving force behind his own defeat, even though the measure includes what many environmentalists consider too many concessions to the operators of coal-fired power plants. "People felt like they were being attacked," Bowling says. "Cap-and-trade really had the public in this area confused. Two or three weeks from the election, we knew we were going to lose. I don't think anyone could have won with a 'D' on their name."

Asked whether he would have voted for the bill, Bowling chuckled. "I would've voted like Nick Joe Rahall across the border," he said, referring to the West Virginian who was one of 44 Democratic defectors.

Democratic Chairman Presley says that the congressional health care debate and the mistrust of Washington also deeply affected Buchanan's aging electorate, driving down both turnout and support for his party. "I had friends of mine tell me their grandparents had never voted Republican before but really needed to this time."

Naturally, Bowling's loss and Deeds's thrashing in coal country have stoked Democratic worries about whether Boucher will be able to hold on in November's election. In 1982, when Boucher unseated a GOP incumbent amid high unemployment, he piled up large enough margins in the coal counties to win the district very narrowly. As he has cruised to large double-digit re-election victories since then, he has continued to rack up his highest percentages in coal territory.

Republicans haven't yet fielded a strong candidate to run against Boucher. If they do, the incumbent's challenge will be to explain his role in brokering the energy bill. Coal-country voters have "always tolerated Boucher because he's brought home the bacon," GOP Chairman Lester contends. But "Boucher will never carry Buchanan County" this year, he predicts. "He's a beat man if we get the right candidate."

Boucher and many of his allies believe that Congress will inevitably enact climate-change legislation and that Congress, not Obama's Environmental Protection Agency, should set coal policy. "Boucher, who wants this region to have success, is the best thing they can have for negotiations," said Joe Puckett, a Democrat who worked on the Bowling campaign. "But trying to explain alternatives to cap-and-trade is not easy."

Puckett, whose father, state Sen. Phil Puckett, represents Buchanan, argues that "Boucher will have the time and resources" to win a 15th term but will have to clearly differentiate himself from Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "What surprised me the most [in the polling] was the mistrust of the Pelosi-led Congress," Puckett says. "Boucher's success will depend on his ability to separate himself from that Congress."

Other Democrats are more bullish. "Boucher would have to wring a cat's head off on YouTube to lose," says Dave (Mudcat) Saunders, a rural strategist based in Roanoke. And Presley contends that most locals think "Boucher is the hardest-working congressman on the Hill right now."

But some Democrats are gloomy about Boucher's prospects. Kinder, the veteran poll worker, estimates that 90 percent of coal-country residents, including him and most other Democrats, oppose cap-and-trade despite Boucher's role in shaping the bill. "I think cap-and-trade is the wrong way to go. It would be devastating. You never miss a light until it goes out, and coal turns the lights on." Kinder warns, "Nobody's done more for southwest Virginia than Rick Boucher, but there'll be a big percentage that won't stick with him."

Adding to the Democrats' worries is how much the UMWA's influence has waned. Coal employment in Buchanan is one-third what it was in 1990. But, Boucher says, the "UMWA has an influence in my district that expands beyond its numbers. It's seen as a cultural force." He concedes, however, that "the coal industry is really feeling under siege."

The Democrats' 2009 crash in southwest Virginia ought to frighten them beyond Buchanan and Boucher's district, up and down the ridges and valleys of Appalachia, where plenty of congressional Democrats represent hardscrabble territory akin to Buchanan. Throughout the 1990s, President Clinton remained at least somewhat popular with these rural voters. But many veteran Democratic lawmakers have never had to run for re-election when a president of their party was as unpopular with their constituents as Obama is now.

Recent private polling has shown veteran Democratic Reps. Vic Snyder of Arkansas and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia surprisingly weak. Democratic Reps. John Tanner and Bart Gordon of Tennessee are opting to retire rather than run again. Clinton carried all four of their districts in 1992, but Obama didn't break 45 percent of the vote in any of them.

If the bottom is indeed falling out for Democrats in Appalachian districts, at least several unsuspecting officeholders are likely to find an early lump of coal in their stockings this year.